The Liverpool-bred writer-director Terence Davies is best known for deeply felt, meticulously controlled reveries "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and the gorgeous personal essay "Of Time and the City." Now 66, he sees the past — his own and his country's — as a war between oxygen-depriving conformity and what another Terence called "the whole of life," in all its terror and wonder.
If that sounds grandiose, well, Davies is that. Yet he works small, either by choice or budgetary necessity, making intimate chamber pieces just outside the boundaries of realism. At his best, this remarkable filmmaker conveys what it's like to remember, the feeling of being lost in a feeling. He's also a wizard at grounding his visions of the past with just the right slivers of documentary detail, lest the whole thing waft away like cigarette smoke: the sound of a coins clinking into a gas meter, for example, or the stunningly drab variety of wallpaper patterns, post-World War II division, so often afforded the last word in a given shot in Davies' fascinating film of the Terence Rattigan drama"The Deep Blue Sea."
When Rattigan premiered the play in London in 1952, the Angry Young Man screeds (John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" was the first shot across the bow) were still a few years off, and Rattigan was riding high, comforting audiences with his craftsmanship and wit while nudging them here and there toward sympathy with society's outsiders. In "The Deep Blue Sea," Hester, a respectable but restless vicar's daughter, has married a prosperous judge, William. It is a coupling dangerously devoid of passion. Hester dives into an affair with an alcoholic ex-RAF pilot, Freddie, with whom she takes a flat. Rattigan's play unfolds in a single day, following Hester's suicide attempt.
Davies' film works from the same premise and time frame. But on screen, with the exquisitely cast Rachel Weisz (Hester), Tom Hiddleston (Freddie) and Simon Russell Beale (William), "The Deep Blue Sea" is more liquid than solid, all to the better.
Acres of speechifying and expository lather have been cleared away to strip this triangle down to its essence. This allows Davies to accommodate passages such as a wordless prologue in which Hester, in a series of fade-outs, prepares for her unsuccessful suicide mission. Later, in a densely layered array of flashbacks, we glimpse scenes from a marriage — William at his work, Hester sitting alone, a tight smile between them — and then Hester and Freddie in bed, limbs intertwined, as Davies' camera circles above them.
The time, we're told, is "around 1950," and the characters remain prisoners of their experiences during wartime. Freddie was never more fulfilled than he was in 1940, as Hester notes. In one splendid tracking shot (an affecting counterpoint to the ostentatious Dunkirk tableau in Joe Wright's"Atonement"), Hester descending the steps to the Aldwych underground station jogs her memory of the Blitz, where she and her husband huddled among other Londoners.
Davies composes this sequence as part of what is very nearly a song cycle. In the Aldwych scene the traditional tune "Molly Malone" is sung, while in a pub scene, Freddie and Hester join the crowd in singing along to Jo Stafford's version of "You Belong to Me." Davies is at his best here. The film's score is dominated by Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14, and there are times when the music's fervent intensity becomes a bit much – the actors, especially Weisz, have to act a lot just to compete with its wild-eyed quality. In the final scene with Hester and Freddie, the tight-lipped exchanges and methodical rhythms seem directorially engineered rather than naturally inhabited.
True to Davies' form, much of "The Deep Blue Sea" has a hushed quality. Davies' touch never will be for everyone, but what I love about "The Deep Blue Sea" is the way Davies can take the oldest and potentially dullest visual strategy in the book and make it seem new, even strange. Throughout the film, Weisz (marvelously expressive and conflicted) speaks to Hiddleston or to Beale, in an isolated close-up or medium shot. Then, after a second or two, her fellow actor responds with a line or two, again set off by a tiny bit of space. It's not dead air, exactly, because it works: The actors fill the pause with a look of expectation or dread or regret. Hiddleston has become a familiar face on screen lately, with his soul-of-goodness turn in"War Horse"and hisF. Scott Fitzgeraldin"Midnight in Paris."It's gratifying to see him tear it up a little here. Beale, a superlative stage actor, works in a shrewd Chekhovian vein as the prim, then vindictive, then forgiving husband.
This is an extremely deft job of adaptation. Davies has met Rattigan on his own terms. I may be alone in wishing Davies hadn't whomped the material with quite so much Barber, but there you go.
'The Deep Blue Sea' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for a scene of sexuality and nudity)
Running time: 1:38
Opens: Friday at the Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Landmark's Renaissance Place, Highland Park; and the Wilmette Theatre.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times