It was probably inevitable that acclaimed British filmmaker Terence Davies would eventually turn his attention to the work of playwright Terence Rattigan. Whether set in the Liverpool of his childhood (The Terence Davies Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes), 1940s Georgia (The Neon Bible) or New York in the early 1900s (The House of Mirth), Davies’ films have always revolved around the clash between personal passion and a repressive society. As he has acknowledged in interviews, and evocatively in his explicitly autobiographical works, Davies’ vision was forged in the 1950s England of his youth. Growing up gay in this bleak period between the chaos of World War II and the swinging London of the 1960s gave Davies a deep understanding of the intensity and fear of forbidden desires. His films seethe with burning emotions under their quiet surfaces.
While Davies was struggling through a difficult childhood, Rattigan was one of the dominant figures in British theater. His restrained plays (The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy) about stiff upper-lipped men and women trying to live with honor embodied the era, at least until John Osborne and the “angry young men” turned England’s theatrical world upside-down and made Rattigan appear instantly passé. In recent years, there has been a growing appreciation of Rattigan’s understated emotionalism, which has resulted in a strong revival of interest in his work.
Perhaps because they are both gay men who grew up in a hostile society, the deeply poetic filmmaker and the highly traditional playwright meld perfectly in their shared focus on the corrosive power of living with secrets and lies.
Davies’ searing adaptation of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea arrives just in time for the author’s centennial. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as one of Rattigan’s most haunting characters, Hester Collyer, who abandons her affectionate but passionless marriage to a wealthy judge to pursue an illicit affair with a troubled young RAF pilot, even though she knows that his love is not as strong as hers, and their relationship will never be accepted by society. The film is largely set during one decisive night when Hester, following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, must make decisions that will change the course of her life.
Davies conjures up a mesmerizing city of foggy streets and smoky rooms. Set in a time before television and the mass media became ubiquitous, The Deep Blue Sea transports us to a 1950s England that is at once startlingly intimate and deeply oppressive. The lack of modern technological distractions creates a rich social fabric that would seem unimaginable today, but also a societal supervision that many would now find disturbing. Hester desperately wants to break free from the social shackles that bind her, but she’s constantly aware of the watchful eyes of her neighbors, and even strangers.
The Deep Blue Sea is a heartbreaking love story, a fascinating portrait of a particular moment in British society and a superb introduction to the work of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.