Terence Davies is one of Britain's best living filmmakers, with a voice and style like no one else's. The two features that made his reputation, 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives and 1992's The Long Day Closes — the latter showing Saturday and Sunday at The Belcourt in a gorgeous new print — draw mostly on the pop culture of his Liverpudlian childhood, particularly Hollywood musicals. But they push that influence toward something resembling an avant-garde meditation on the past, where movie snippets and snatches of songs bleed into the reminiscences around them.
Yet he's had the kind of cursed career suffered by the likes of Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky. In Davies' case, the reasons remain obscure. When Davies dealt even more directly with his childhood in his documentary Of Time and the City, he was less successful than when he filtered it through fiction. His new film, The Deep Blue Sea, marks his first narrative film since 2000's The House of Mirth a dozen years ago. And while it may seem disappointing to those familiar with Davies' greatest work (including The Long Day Closes), newcomers may well find it a romantic melodrama of a higher order than most anything else they're likely to see now in theaters.
Adapted from a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan (which was filmed in 1955 by Anatole Litvak), The Deep Blue Sea opens in the apartment of Hester (Rachel Weisz), who attempts suicide as she declares in voice-over, "This time I really do want to die." The film then segues into the first of many flashbacks as Hester languishes at home with her husband, judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), whose age difference is a source of tension. She begins to turn away from him toward a younger man, a former RAF pilot named Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers' scene-stealing Loki). After Hester survives her suicide attempt, the film offers up flashbacks that explain what drove her to her desperate act.
Openly gay, Davies claims he's been celibate since 1980, while Rattigan himself was closeted; one can sense that Hester reflects both men's reticence about desire. She may be torn between two men, but her passion seems more intellectual than emotional. This is a film about people afraid of showing their feelings, a stereotypically English trait. Even when Hester and Freddie conduct their affair, they speak very little. Theoretically, their silences should convey the depth of their feeling, but The Deep Blue Sea isn't Ozu: The director relies too often on a soundtrack of classical selections to supply the missing emotion.
Rachel Weisz's performance is extraordinarily accomplished, and her beauty and glamour are appropriate for Hester's more youthful years. But in important ways she seems miscast. At the time the story opens, with Hester's attempted suicide, she should appear beaten down a bit by life. Weisz was 40 when the film was made, but she looks like she's in her early 30s even when the character's in the troughs of despair. Casting such a role poses difficulties in an industry that demands the illusion of eternal youth from actresses, lest their careers end at 35. Even so, The Deep Blue Sea doesn't even try to age her convincingly.
To some, however, these will seem minor quibbles, especially if they're encountering Davies' work for the first time. The Deep Blue Sea may be devoid of the stunning sound/image combinations that powered early Davies films such as Distant Voices and The Long Day Closes, but it's still framed and lit with tremendous care. And while it's successful mostly as an actors' showcase, the director stages one amazing setpiece that approaches the heights of his earlier work, a lengthy scene in a London subway during the Blitz. The long gaps in Terence Davies' filmography may have raised expectations no movie could fulfill. But one hopes that Davies, who's now in his 60s, won't have to wait another dozen years to try.