A visually sumptuous adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, which offered a sustained assault on English middle-class values, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea consolidates the director’s triumphant return to filmmaking following his rapturously received tone poem Of Time and the City. Set in a post-war Britain suffering a crisis of identity and cultural and economic decline, the film continues the director’s interest in class, morality and the position of women in patriarchal society. Inspired by the melodramas much loved by the director, the film is powered by a tour de force performance from Rachel Weisz, and its sensory beauty is heightened by a characteristically adroit use of music.
Jason Wood talked to Terence Davies during the London Film Festival about British society in the 1950s, the value of restraint, true love and the nature of memory.
Jason Wood: How did you come to adapt Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and did you have any hesitation in accepting the challenge of bringing the play to the screen?
Terence Davies: I had never adapted a play but Sean O’Connor, one of the producers, asked me if I would like to adapt a Rattigan work. I looked at the whole Rattigan canon and told Sean that I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I was a bit worried because the way Rattigan works is to put all the exposition in Act 1. I personally don’t like that but I, of course, respect that this is Rattigan’s style. I did a very tentative first draft and Adam Brody of the Rattigan Trust to my complete amazement suggested that I be more radical with it.
I had always maintained that it had to be shot from Hester’s point of view, so most of the exposition had to go because if she is not privy to a conversation then we can’t have it. Once everyone agreed on that I thought, ‘Yes. I think I can do it’. The fact that there was so much talk was a real worry at first, and of course that is one of the major differences between theatre and film. With theatre you have to explain everything. With film you can just show it.
There are numerous parallels with your work: the notion of outsiders, the position of women in a repressed society and 1950s Britain. Why do these subjects hold such a fascination for you?
I grew up in the 50s so I know what it was like, and what it felt like. When you are growing up, and I think this is true of all children, you absorb a lot, and that includes the social mores. In the 50s you did as you were told. Everybody in authority was believed and obeyed without question. My mother was a great survivor and a woman of great love and tenderness. She was strong, not hard. I loved my brothers but with three sisters and their girlfriends I simply grew up with women. I also grew up with the romantic films of the period, All That Heaven Allows, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Magnificent Obsession. They all had women as their central characters. Focusing on women characters always came very naturally to me.
What I certainly didn’t want to do with Hester was to make her seem either a victim or clinging in a possessive way. I knew that we had to show a woman who is in many ways extremely conventional doing something extraordinarily unconventional. Hester leaves her husband, and women didn’t do that in the 1950s, even if they had a bad marriage, like my mother’s. Hester finds sex at 40 and it overwhelms her. She makes a number of social faux pas that people may not know now. For example it was not the done thing to argue in public. Even working-class people didn’t argue in public.
The real revelation about reading the play umpteen times was that the subtext is love. Each person wants a kind of love from the other that simply cannot be given or reciprocated. At the end Hester experiences true love. True love is to say to someone that you adore more than life ‘If you are really better off without me then I let you go’.
Rattigan’s play deals with passion and sex but was of course very much restricted by what it could show because of the time in which it was written. We live in less morally restrictive times so I wondered how that affected your approach in this regard.
There is something very interesting about being sexually repressed. I am homosexual and that was illegal, but even heterosexual sex, you just never saw it. You might see a film such as Passport to Shame, where Odile Versois takes her blouse off, but that was about it. There is something about restraint, and not just sexual restraint, that we have lost in this country. Restraint can be extraordinarily moving. I did want to show Hester and Freddie in bed but I wanted it to be erotic rather than purely sexual. For me it was about the nature of flesh against cloth and I think that is far more sensual. I show the post-coital moments of soft greys and soft blues against Hester’s hands that are wearing red nail varnish. For me this is much more interesting than simply showing people thrusting away at each other. It is rather like violence. If you don’t show very much it is always far more shocking. People always seem to remember the scene where the mother in Distant Voices, Still Lives is beaten as being incredibly shocking but if you watch it again it actually isn’t. It is implied.
What aesthetic choices did you make to represent the period on screen? Sean O’Connor has described it as ‘an anti-period film’ and yet there is a very potent visual texture. The palette is largely autumnal but there are also astonishing splashes of colour. I know that Vermeer is a big influence.
Vermeer is possibly the greatest influence. I could look at his paintings forever and never get bored. I just love the idea of someone at a window, not necessarily doing anything.
When I was growing up you hardly saw any primary colours. After the war everything was faded. Well kept, but shabby. Colours were generally autumnal. Sometimes you might see a splash of red.
You play with linearity and memory. I think this is another key characteristic of your work.
It struck me as a very obvious approach. If we are going to see things from Hester’s point of view it makes sense to start with Hester’s attempted suicide as this seems the smartest way to reveal how she got there. Memory works in a cyclical way and by emotional association. It is not a linear narrative. Once you set up the idea that this is not linear, when you have informed your audience that we are going to be moving in and out of linear time, it is really relatively easy.
I am fascinated by time and by the nature of time. It is why I am so beholden to The Four Quartets. The nature of time, as well as our perception of it, is one of the central themes of The Four Quartets. I also love the use of time in Letter from an Unknown Woman, one of the greatest films about the subject of unrequited love. Despite the way Ophüls uses time you always know exactly where you are.
As with all of your work music plays an incredibly important role in the film. Can you discuss your use of Samuel Barber and the popular music of the time?
I have known the Barber Violin Concerto for a long time and I think it is one of the great violin concertos. I knew it was right for this film. The reason why I chose ‘You Belong to Me’ was because in the 50s there was a programme on the radio at 12 o’clock called Family Favourites. This was for all the British forces abroad sending their requests home, and equally people in Britain sending their requests to their loved ones in the armed forces overseas. We were the only Catholics in our street so we’d get up early for mass, come home, have something to eat and switch on the radio at 12 o’clock. It was a lovely warm summer morning on one particular day I’ll never forget. I went and sat out on the front step. There were doors and windows open and everybody was listening to the same programme and ‘You Belong to Me’ was playing. It struck me as perfect for this film.
When we last spoke you had returned to filmmaking with Of Time and the City. Do you now feel more able to make films on a regular basis? There hasn’t been the long hiatus you previously endured.
I am genuinely quite surprised at the response that has been given to me. Before Of Time and the City I didn’t work for eight years and I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over now’. I never thought I would get a second chance. To be asked to close the London Film Festival with The Deep Blue Sea was such an honour. I kept thinking somebody was going to come up and say, ‘We’re very sorry. We’ve made a mistake. It’s the OTHER Terence Davies’.
Interview by Jason Wood