A version of this review appeared in The Age, April 14, 2012.
Though he ranks among the greatest British film directors, Terence Davies has only been allowed to make a handful of movies: something in his work scares investors, perhaps the way its extreme beauty is accompanied by so much pain. Set in London a few years after World War Two, his devastating new adaptation of a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan begins at a bombed-out patch of waste ground, for him an apt image of the human heart.
From this point on, Davies explodes his source material into fragments of memory drifting through the mind of his heroine Lady Hester (Rachel Weisz), who has recently left her fuddy-duddy husband (Simon Russell Beale) for the younger Freddy (Tom Hiddleton), a RAF pilot turned louche man-about-town, moving into a couple of dingy rooms in a boarding house adjacent to the bomb site.
“Beware of passion,” warns Hester's gargoyle of a mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford) in flashback. “It always leads to something ugly.” Aided by a trio of resourceful stars, Davies undertakes to show us various kinds of potentially ugly passion burning beneath his characters' stiff British facades. Weisz often seems to be smiling through suppressed tears, maintaining a “brave face” that conceals nothing; Hiddleston is a boggle-eyed Bertie Wooster, furious to be carried so far out of his depth.
Rattigan's dialogue makes clear that Hester's love for Freddy is essentially physical, a mildly “daring” notion in its day, and one that Davies impresses on us with memorable economy in a few shots of the couple in bed. But perhaps more deeply still, she craves the sense of being truly alive – and so she embraces the drama of adultery much as Freddy yearns for the excitement of the war.
Desolate as his vision tends to be, Davies has never lost faith in the special form of cinematic pleasure exemplified by the Hollywood of the 1950s, where music, lighting, charismatic actors and elaborately choreographed camera movements all combine to express feeling in a direct and forceful way. His dissolves in particular give the seductive impression of sinking into a sorrowful dream; The Deep Blue Sea is unabashedly a “weepie,” and Davies knows better that most that nothing is more indulgent than a good cry.
This impression of paradoxical luxury extends across the entire film, despite the austere handling of the long dialogue scenes taken directly from Rattigan, where actors stand in the shadows and address each other solemnly as if on an empty stage. Such stillness puts enormous weight on every nuance of expression and every carefully chosen sound: creaking footsteps, the ticking of a clock, the cries of children in the street. At its height of intensity, this formalised style reaches a pitch that demands comparison not with Hollywood but with Carl Dreyer's masterpiece Gertrud (1964), another portrait of a woman determined to sacrifice everything for love.
It has sometimes been suggested that Rattigan's play is a veiled treatment of his own homosexuality, but rather than delve into any supposed “gay subtext” Davies conveys something far more remarkable, a sense that the feelings being explored are beyond gender: that a similar story could be told about a love affair between a married man and a younger woman, or between two women or two men.
Not only beyond gender, but beyond class, too. Davies' most radical additions to the play draw on collective rather than individual memory: the film finds its climax in a wartime flashback condensed into one extraordinary tracking shot, as Londoners from all backgrounds join in a chorus of “Cockles and Mussels” like a charm against the dark.
For all its historical and cultural specificity – or because of this – the film gives a notion of what might be meant by that difficult term “universal”. It is not foolish to compare Hester's private agony with the devastation wrought by the bombs: both, after all, are matters of life and death. Still, each of her neighbours could have lived through as much or more. The horror and the consolation is that no-one has to suffer alone.