Back in 1967, Newsweek called the now forgotten Elvira Madigan “the most beautiful film ever made.” This was, of course, long before Wong Kar-Wai picked up a camera. Or Terence Davies, whose most recent is The Deep Blue Sea. As the autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) have told us, he grew up in a family devastated by alcoholism in a gloomy Liverpool before the Beatles. His only sanctuary was the movies and he keeps that idea of the cinema as a holy place in all of his films.
Adapted from Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea is exquisite to behold. Filmed by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, the myriad night scenes have the illusion of being lit solely by practical lights (street lamps, etc.). While not directly autobiographical this time out, the execution is pure Davies. People have group sings in the pub, cheerful despite the postwar austerity, and, in a flashback to the war, a lone tenor sings “Molly Malone” to a crowd assembled in the underground during the blitz.
Rachel Weisz, seen as a UN peacekeeper in the Whistleblower (2010), takes on a very different role here as Hester Collyer, an upper class woman in 1950s London. She’s trapped in a bad marriage and an even worse affair. In a dutiful way, she cares for her older, politically powerful husband, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale) but only feels that slit-your-wrists passion for the working class Freddie, (Tom Hiddleston) a Royal Air Force pilot who survived the Battle of Britain. An opening montage shows their courtship from first meeting to the bedroom, accompanied by rhapsodic strings. As with the female characters in Davies’ other films, a sense of powerlessness is the source of Hester’s anxiety and depression. That’s despite her social class and rare beauty. At one point, she explains that, like the song, she’s caught “Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.” Possessed of the most alluring eyes in the movies, Weisz is particularly memorable in a scene where she speaks to Freddie from a phone booth, almost literally pouring her heart out.
How to keep a story visually interesting that happens primarily in a character’s psyche is the challenge. In some ways, he’s a successor to the directors of mid 20th century melodrama. Occasionally, The Deep Blue Sea slips into being a filmed play. For the most part, it’s Davies at his yearning, meditative best.