In Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, a cinematic amplification the 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, light is suppressed like emotion. We want both to flood and flare up, of course, but Davies—a master of postwar gloom, the melodrama of self-restraint, low light, and soft focus—knows how to suppress us too, and seduce us with languorous beauty, until we are in thrall to shadows and waiting.
Not unlike Davies’ heroine, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who struggles in darkness for most of the film—first as a voice, reading her suicide letter over the blue-black montage of the film’s opening, and later as a woman, beautifully realized by Weisz, who rarely leaves the dingy walk-up in which she is shipwrecked. Like Lily Bart, the tragic society girl of Davies’ previous adaptation, The House of Mirth, Hester gives up bourgeois comfort for something higher, which proves fleeting. Both women are left with little else, in the end, but rooms of their own.
More than The House of Mirth, though, which bulges with the many settings of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Deep Blue Sea is framed by its spatial dilemma: the opening sequence drops us off on Hester’s street in London, where darkness is punctuated by only a few gas lights. A long crane shot tells us we’re watching a Davies film, but it also establishes an atmosphere of the impending, splicing the DNA of stage and film melodrama is one elegant gesture. Supporting players move in and out of a block of flats as we ascend, story by story, to Hester’s window, which replaces the proscenium as our portal into her emotional life.
Hester peers out, then shuts her curtains against the weak light; she is ready to act on her letter. The next ten minutes are a miracle of compression. Davies reduces the play’s exposition—How did fortyish Hester, the wife of a judge, end up here?—to a flickering swirl of montage, as good as anything he has shot, that represents Hester’s consciousness as it slides toward oblivion. The effect is pure film, but by summarizing Hester’s love affair with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) instead of following it around town, it keeps us close to the “stage” of the flat. Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto dissolves into ambient sound, then voices, as Hester makes her way back up to the surface of the living: an inversion of Lily Bart’s journey at the end of Mirth.
Understandably, it takes a little while—the length of a few cigarettes—for Hester to readjust to the burden of being alive. She sits still and remembers, and Davies takes us back a few months to a visit with Collyer’s mother, who tells Hester to “beware of passion… It always leads to something ugly.” Barbara Jefford’s turn as the phallic mother-in-law is brilliant; the scene, probably unnecessary. In showing us the life Hester led before her split, though, it does more than show us the repression of passion; it exposes the lacquer and polish of Collyer’s world. The scene’s perverse light helps us to understand Hester’s darkness, and depth, even as Davies’ storytelling becomes heavy-handed.
The rest of the film unfolds in a linear fashion, charting a day of emotional crisis—and changing light—with theatrical attention. There are only a few set changes. Hester never ventures far from her flat, which is also Freddie’s when he is around, but jealousy and anger lead her down the street to a pub and, eventually, the Aldwych tube station, where she has an Ann Karenina moment. Davies is a classicist, and when Hester is framed by columns, or an arch, like Lily Bart, she is usually dead center. (So merciless is Davies, Lily’s walk of shame at the end of Mirth takes her under a triumphal arch.) Unlike Lily, however, Hester inhabits the small world of a revolving stage; transitions are the focus, not tableaux. When Freddie suddenly appears from nowhere, like an actor rushing from the wings, we feel he has just left the pub.
In Mirth, on the other hand, characters posture and pose, sometimes against CGI backdrops, like escapees from The Decoration of Houses. We must rely on verbal clues to know which estate they are on, and even which country they are in, until the film’s final devolution back to New York. This is appropriate; Wharton’s novel is about yacht-hopping Edwardian Society; but the milieux is perhaps too delightful to Davies, who cannot resist a high camp interpretation of it. The resulting film adaptation is a hall of mirrors, reflecting human nature off of camp sensibility, and vice versa, until we are unsure whether film’s final line, “I love you,” is earnest or ironic.
The same uncertainty rings through Of Time and the City (2008), Davies’ acclaimed autobiographical documentary. In it, Davies pieces together archival and newsreel footage of his hometown, Liverpool, and speaks. His queenly commentary supplements a fairly conventional string of images, and without it, alas, we would understand much less about Liverpool and midcentury Britain. When Davies goes on one too many tirades, though, spitting insults at “Betty Windsor,” or when he closes the film—after opening it—with an opera of helicopter-shot Architecture, we are so deep in his pysche, and sensibility, that time and the city have all but disappeared.
Which is perhaps Davies’ victory. By laying himself bare he wins the right to represent the Liverpool he wants: all porticos and rainbows. The problem? That Davies’ framing of Liverpool reduces the hour he spends in its terrace houses and council estates, the spaces of his adolescence, ignoring the real wages of time. It is Proust in reverse. Davies’ privileging of melodrama over social satire in Mirth has a similar effect: just when we are ready to cry at the tragedy of it all, Davies cuts in with artifice. The aesthete within rejoices, the intellect mourns—for only wit can weigh in on tragedy, not wallpaper. Even members of Society know as much.
A product of early fifties theater, The Deep Blue Sea is camp at its core; some have even called the character of Hester a “disguised” gay man, a reduction that serves neither Rattigan’s biography nor criticism of the play. But the film’s camp is an amplification of reality, not a distraction from it. Tragedy in The Deep Blue Sea is a living, breathing, moving thing, as much like the tragedy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il desert rosso as the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Hester poses, of course, but like Antonioni’s Giuliana she also walks and runs and quips. Small as it is, she has the space in which to do so: a cinematic stage.
The final shot of the film is its opening, inverted. A day has passed and Hester has learned, and decided to go on living. Davies lets off the pressure; light floods the screen. As in Mirth, he tracks to the window of his heroine’s hopeless room, but instead of turning back to Hester, as he does to Lily, he keeps tracking out and out—back down the block of flats, past the friends who have taught Hester about true love—to something unexpected: children playing in the rubble of the Blitz.
We knew all along we were in London “around 1950,” we even saw Hester through a war flashback, but we did not know, for the darkness, that she was living on a ruined street. The children scamper off. A lone doorframe stands in the rubble, and we close in on it until, in the last moment of the film, we have seen through its frame to the other side of tragedy. There are no rainbows here, there is no “I love you,” but the view from Hester’s street offers a hope as raw and real as it is stylized.