The Deep Blue Sea
Directed By: Terrence Davies
Written By: Terrence Davies, adapted from the play by Terrence Rattigan
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, and Ann Mitchell
Director of Photography: Florian Hoffmeister, Editor: David Charap, Production Designer: James Merifield
With the cinema of Terrence Davies, sometimes all it takes is one shot. The British director can say it all with one marvelous stroke of cinematic precision. In his latest feature, The Deep Blue Sea, it comes quite early. During the film’s abstract, almost wordless prologue, we see at one point the camera swirl around lovers Hester and Freddie, naked in bed, their bodies so perfectly aligned, they look like two puzzle pieces coming together. Halfway through the shot, Davies slowly cross-dissolves to the exact same shot, except we are back in the present, and Hester is alone. At this point, we don’t know what has happened to Freddie, but we can feel the tremendous sadness behind the eyes of Hester. She exalts a loss, which we learn is not one of physical proportions, but actually metaphysical; A love that simply cannot be kindled, with no hope of coming back.
And in his first narrative film in over a decade, Davies captures the sublime, devastating tragedy of love in this adaptation of the play by Terrence Rafferty set in 1950s London. Davies has often been an autobiographical filmmaker—his first two features, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, play more like memory totems (as does his 2008 essay film, Of Time and the City). You get the sense that there is still some of Davies’s past creeping into The Deep Blue Sea through the background visuals, but most of the film is dedicated to these characters, which Davies inhabits with beauty, and devastating emotions in this day long narrative.
This includes many flashbacks, none particularly announced, that simply fold into the narrative. This is most apparent in the first five minutes of the film, as we watch Hester slowly prepare to kill herself. Played by Rachel Weisz, Hester slowly prepares the room of which she will turn on the gas, and small memories jump in and out of this moment. Her first night with her husband Bill (Simon Russell Beale, an understated gem of an actor), the first words Freddie (Tom Hiddelston, big and exciting) spoke to her, and that shot of them in bed. Davies slows down the camera as he shows Hester making small gestures—turning on the gas, placing the note, closing the blinds—fading to black after each, giving each moment its own weight with a Bresson-like diligence.
Had Davies simply ended the film here, The Deep Blue Sea might have been purely perfect, but Hester sadly survives thanks to a nosy landlord (and the quality doesn’t so much as dip as extend slowly). We slowly learn more about the reasons that led to this act, and the fallout between her and Freddie (as well as Bill). Davies never overemphasizes anything. His camera is often muted, letting the colors and actors jump more than his own cinematic prowess. His shots are simple, perfectly placed and often still. When he does show off, it’s so subdued you might miss it—a slow tracking shot across a platform on the underground, as we watch the citizens sing songs of hope as the bombs fall above.
None of this would be quite effective if Davies wasn’t so natural at bringing out such high emotions in his actors, yet without emphasizing them through dialogue. While Hiddelston has a few huge moments, playing off his character’s uncontrollable emotions, Weisz plays for the small, almost minute details. She let’s the way she holds a cigarette or the water in her eyes that refuses to fall out speak for her. Her voice is a quiet whisper, barely audible over the film’s classical music soundtrack. When she does deliver dialogue, it slays. “Stay with me just tonight,” she pleads late in the film. She makes this request have the life or death manner that Hester truly believes.
Whenever we have another Terrence Davies film, it’s a blessing as from high heaven, and it’s a shame the director has had to fight so hard to make his films. The craft in The Deep Blue Sea—the extreme use of blinding lights, or the majestically flowing camera—is apparent from the first frame to the last (a mirrored shot no less!). Davies controls this story meticulously, but he also brings that feel of passion. He may have not lived this story as some of his other films suggest, he certainly knows the emotions, and conveys them with a devastating power you might miss if you aren’t looking.