The Power of Restraint in the Films of The Deep Blue Sea's Terence Davies

With The Deep Blue Sea, the great British director Terence Davies returns to the post-war period — though in a sense, he has never left. The cinema of Davies (born in 1945) is defined by a mixed pity and fondness for the world of yesterday, a past he seemingly finds impossible to put behind him or to do without. The era's hypocritical propriety and quivering repression has most frequently been held up for "enlightened" Pleasantville-style condescension, but Davies is a great historical filmmaker because he feels the period too intimately to mock its rituals and mores; he knows that no progress occurs without loss.

The Deep Blue Sea is only Davies' seventh film, his first since 2008's documentary Of Time and the City — a tessellated arrangement of archival footage that conjured up the working-class Liverpool of his upbringing as youngest of 10 in a crowded Catholic family — and his first fiction feature since his towering 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. The release of a new film by Davies, then, is a rare event and cause for celebration.

Nothing, it seems, comes quick or easy for Davies. After spending his young adulthood in menial white-collar work, Davies escaped to Coventry Drama School. There, nurturing a privately gestated sensibility, Davies emerged to repurpose his memories, including verboten same-sex desires, into the life of alter ego Robert Tucker in three short films bundled together in 1984 as The Terence Davies Trilogy. Davies' burgeoning reputation was cemented with 1988's diptych Distant Voices, Still Lives, a cycle of scenes drawn from the author's brutal boyhood — Pete Postlethwaite plays the petty-tyrant dad — and 1992's The Long Day Closes, which recounts a stultifyingly shy, bullied boy's refuge in movie houses.

The Deep Blue Sea director Terence Davies
The Deep Blue Sea director Terence Davies

While not drawn from Davies' biography, The Deep Blue Sea returns to Distant Voice's one-track shuttle between the terrace house and pub. Adapted from a 1952 play by Sir Terence Rattigan, Sea concerns a married woman, Lady Hester (Rachel Weisz), leaving her husband, a high court judge some years her senior (Simon Russell Beale), to follow a sexually fulfilling, emotionally destructive affair with a former RAF pilot, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston).

Rattigan's estate commissioned the film from Davies, whose difficulties in securing financing are legendary, on the occasion of the centenary of the playwright's birth. In adapting the film, Davies bashed Rattigan's talky, exposition-heavy play to bits and fashioned the fragments into a mosaic of telling moments. "The nature of cinema is that it's so powerful, it can take a very, very small thing and make it huge, and take a huge thing and make it intimate," Davies, speaking on the phone from the U.K., says of his retooling of Rattigan's play, on the evening before he's to travel to the States and begin making the promotional rounds for his new film.

Davies' focus has always been stethoscopic, listening for the drama beneath the surface. "If obliquity were a vice, we should all be tainted," says Wharton's heroine, Lily Bart, in House of Mirth, and it's one vice that commands Davies' fascination. "I am drawn to the past, maybe more than I ought to be," says Davies, who, as much as the deferential conformity of yesteryear, seems to deplore contemporary license, which makes the oblique obsolete: "The first thing that goes is subtlety; the first thing that goes is any kind of restraint or even wit sometimes. I don't know how to deal with that in the modern world."

In the course of our 40-minute chat, Davies mourns a general decline in civility, "Spanish resorts that the British have simply ruined," a consuming obsession with fame, and a culture where keeping up appearances — the sense of "holding a pose" that inspires his formal compositions — has been replaced by another type of display: "People used to be restrained. At funerals, men weren't allowed to cry because women didn't like it. It was women who didn't like to see their men cry . . . All those things have changed now in this country. Everybody cries all the time."

Davies' films sound a requiem for the passing of a unified social world with clearly printed rules while never letting us forget how that same world could stunt and warp lives that didn't conform. Typical of his ambivalence is his attitude toward the church; in Of Time and the City, Davies regrets his "years wasted in useless prayer" with one breath, while with another, mocks today's "deconsecrated Catholic churches now made into restaurants as chic as anything abroad . . . Is this happiness? Is this perfection?"

"Having had that faith and then lost it and nothing to replace it, that's one of the worst feelings of despair. There's nothing worse than that," Davies says today. "I remember, it happened when I was 22. It was at the offertory part of the Mass. I just got up and walked out and said, 'It's all a lie.' And so that part of you dies, and it's never filled with anything except perhaps a lot of doubt."

The secular religion of sex is no succor. Throughout Sea, Hester is warned against the folly of following her libido: "Beware of passion — it always leads to something ugly," warns her mother-in-law, while Hester's vicar father warns of "the pettiness of the physical." This is, of course, the sort of prudishness that smugly modern movies mock, but what makes Sea disturbing is that it never patly invalidates this advice. Davies is quite frank about his own anxiety over grand amour: "Possessiveness and distrust and defeat and all those things . . . I couldn't take it. I could not take it, which is why I've been celibate since 1980. I simply can't take all that." There is, however, a new measure of hope in Sea — for unlike Lily Bart, Hester lives to love another day.

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