To the English upper class in the post–World War II years, the notion of smoldering eroticism was so veddy…European. “Let’s not be vulgar, Hester,” the right-too-honourable judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) tells his wife (Rachel Weisz). “We are talking about marriage.” William’s imperious mother (Barbara Jefford), who sneers at an afternoon meal with Hester as though it’s tea and strumpets, warns her that passion “always leads to something ugly.” She prefers “a guarded enthusiasm. It’s safer.” But Hester, the volcanic heroine of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, is too besotted for safety or for the frosty security of her husband’s embrace. She’s fallen for Freddy Page (Tom Hiddleston), once a Royal Air Force pilot, now a wastrel who knows how to kiss. That’s all Hester wants after she leaves William for Freddy — even after her beau loses interest in this woman above his station.
Seismic passion and the escape from stifling propreity are the themes of a Terence Davies movie. In a series of short films assembled in 1983 as The Terence Davies Trilogy, and with the features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), this most autobiographical of auteurs painted a memoir of his youth in working-class Liverpool — a complex tapestry of family life, of a violent father and gentle mother, an entire neighborhood that soldiered through hard times singing pop songs at the local pub. This was nostalgia with the blinkers off, an epic saga in miniature. The films documented their time and place with an artistic clarity so acute as to be both unbearable and endearing. Long since fled to cosmopolitan London, Davies returned to make Of Time and the City, a very personal documentary of his home town on the 800th anniversary of its founding in 1207 — his own Liverpool, mon amour.
(READ: Corliss on Terence Daves’ Of Time and the City)
The Deep Blue Sea is another centennial celebration: the 100th anniversary of Rattigan’s birth. In his prime, with such plays as French Without Tears, The Browning Version and Separate Tables — all made into popular movies — he was considered a jewel of the English stage. Peter O’Toole, for whom Rattigan wrote the 1969 film of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, thought him the great British playwright of the 20th century. As the Angry Young Men seized theatrical power in the 1950s and beyond, Rattigan’s style of well-wrought drama fell out of fashion. Yet Davies must see the other Terence as a kindred spirit: two homosexual artists with a fondness for the old forms whose boundaries they mean to test. And unlike David Mamet’s 1999 version of The Winslow Boy — an impersonal rendition of the plot, designed to show that a tough-guy auteur could play efficiently in a milder minor key — Davies’ Deep Blue Sea is as much his vision as the playwright’s.
Hester’s violent emotions collide not just with postwar English reserve but with Rattigan’s reputation as a playwright. The bard of the well behaved, he felt crushed when his own younger lover found another beau. The Deep Blue Sea may have been his closeted chronicle of that relationship, for in Hester he created a woman whose sexual ferocity could crack the china in any tea set. Peggy Ashcroft, Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh, Penelope Wilton and Blythe Danner have taken the role of this midcentury tragic heroine, to whom Weisz imparts intellectual acuity and, as Hester descends into depression, a saintly, forlorn fury.
(READ: Mary Pols on Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea)
Davies has been here before. His handsome, thoughtful version of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth (2000) cast Gillian Anderson as a Manhattan vixen, reduced to poverty by an upper class that is tired of her coquetry and unaware of her special heroism in refusing to destroy a rival. Davies characters try to run away from their first home, outlive a first impression, yet the past is a country with no exit visa. In his 1995 film of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, the central character says, “If you were different from anybody else in town, you had to get out.” In one sense, Davies escaped his youth; in another, he keeps returning.
How do Davies’ people face or evade the dour clichés of dead-end domesticity? By expressing their feelings through the poetry of pop songs. Like Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, which also knew how potent cheap music is, Distant Vices, Still Lives was laced with dozens of postwar tunes to counterpoint or underline the narrative. In the pub where everyone stops by “just to wet the baby’s head,” Davies’ sister Eileen pours her seething frustration into a volcanic rendition of “I Wanna Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces,” and her girl-pal Micky sings an effervescent “Buttons and Bows,” and The musky wisp of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Taking a Chance on Love helps” explain the fatalistic refusal of Davies’ mother to leave her man. With its irresistible airs in eerily ironic settings, Distant Voices, Still Lives was the first great sing-along horror movie.
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As in his early films, The Deep Blue Sea uses popular music to strike sparks of solidarity: when a crowd in a bar sings “You Belong to Me” and when, in a long tracking shot down the Aldwych underground platform during the war, a rendition of “Molly Malone” unites every stratum of London society. In Hester and Freddy’s big love scene, Samuel Barber’s Opus for Violin and Orchestra saws majestically away as the nude lovers twine in geometric ecstasy.
The film’s images hold their own visual symphony: the subtle decor reveals as many shades of brown — in the mahogany furniture, the gentlemen’s suits, the fringed lamp shades — as there are shades of green in an Henri Rousseau jungle landscape. The movie is a museum of emotions, brought to contemporary life through the director’s artistry and his leading lady’s fire. Here, they show us, is how people felt, and hurt, in another time. Their love and pain can touch us today.