Director Terence Davies on ’The Deep Blue Sea’
Terence Rattigan, meet Terence Davies. Perhaps the best drama by a happy if discreetly closeted British playwright/screenwriter is brought up to date in a beautifully staged, emotionally precise new screen version by an openly gay if bitterly unhappy filmmaker whose greatest work commemorates those bleak post-WWII years when Britain was forever stripped of its greatness.
The Deep Blue Sea opens as Hester, a 40-year-old woman who has fled a sexless marriage for erotic bliss with a younger man, leaves a suicide note on the mantle of a dimly lit rooming house, a shabby oasis in a neighborhood still dotted with bombed out buildings. Hester’s world is shaken to the core when she discovers that the boundless joys of sex with ex-RAF pilot Freddie end abruptly when they leave the confines of his shabby bed-sitter. The handsome bounder is visibly bored when she takes him to an art gallery, can’t remember her birthday, and is driven to rage when she invades his lair, the local pub with its huge pints and music hall sing-alongs.
In a scene that perhaps belongs more to the cheeky farcical world of the Pythons than to either Terence, Hester’s bid to extinguish herself is frustrated when the shilling she inserts in the gas heater abruptly runs out, and her life is spared by the boarding-house’s motley crew. Faced with the prospect of moving on without either the wealthy judge or the feckless Freddie, Hester (a sensational Rachel Weisz, an Oscar winner for The Constant Gardener) will discover just how much pluck it takes to endure life in a bankrupted Britain without social status, inherited wealth, job skills or good cocksmanship.
"Beware of passion, Hester, it always leads to trouble."
"What would you replace it with?"
"A guarded enthusiasm. My garden is my calm place - so much safer than people."
"Not in the long run."
Offered a shot at adapting a classic Rattigan play to observe the centennial of his birth (1911), Terence Davies explains why this once-famous playwright - pushed rudely from the stage by the 1960s batch of angry young men led by John Osborne - is once again relevant.
"Some people say he’s the British Chekhov. I don’t think that’s true, but he is very important - he was the last of the ’well-made play’ playwrights, who rapidly fell out of fashion after [Osborne’s] Look Back in Anger. The irony is you read Look Back in Anger now, and that’s the one that seems antiquated. All it is is a rant and you think, ’Shut up,’ you want to hit him over the head with the ironing board, you know."
Davies, who can be said to have led a kind of counterrevolution against the 60s angry boys with his bitterly nostalgic, postwar, Hollywood-influenced, music-fueled dramas (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Passes), admits the uprising was needed.
"There needed to be a revolution in British theatre because it was suffocatingly bourgeois, but there are always casualties in revolutions." Davies notes that in deciding to jettison the bulk of the play’s first act in favor of telling the story from Hester’s point of view. he was able to overcome many of Rattigan’s limitations as a dramatist.
Rachel Weisz plays Hester Collyer and Tom Hiddleston plays Freddie Page in Terence Davies’ film The Deep Blue Sea, based on the Terence Rattigan play. (Photo: Courtesy Music Box Films)
"He’s a craftsman, but for me the biggest drawback is that he’s too restrained, too elliptical, even for the period. You think, couldn’t it have been just a little more full-blooded?"
"They [the Rattigan Estate] said, ’Be radical,’ and I was: collapsing the first act to nine minutes, opening it up slightly to show the world she comes from. Plus, the sing-along in the pub is not in the play, her husband’s mother is not in the play. As long as you maintain the integrity of the tone and subtext, it works, but if all you’re doing is photographing the play, there’s just no point!"
Davies produces a casting coup, putting American Weisz up against rising British phenomenon Tom Hiddleston as the devilish seducer Freddie. Davies explains the aura that Freddie’s status as an ex-RAF pilot, hero of the Battle of Britain, still holds for members of the immediate postwar generation (born in 1946).
"The reason we’re obsessed with that war is that it’s the last time we were important. It was the last time that literally the whole country came together. These lads - the average age was 22 - when you saw a German aircraft, you had eight seconds to respond, or you were dead! After living life at that pitch, you come back to drab England with no money. It’s ruined his life, too. He’ll end up either killing himself as a test pilot or he’ll just be a drunk saying, ’I was once in the Battle of Britain.’
"It was extraordinary, we did stand up and fight, and I think [my generation] will never get over that. For the next generation, it might as well be the Punic Wars. It’s like Americans who were changed by Vietnam. In another generation, people will think it was just another war."
The last time I chatted with Terence Davies, it was two wars ago: January 2001, in the very same Hotel Prescott, San Francisco’s then-reigning "love boat for film puffery." I reminded the ebullient ex-Liverpudlian of his comment in his elegiac documentary on his hometown (Of Time and the City) about his bitter dislike of the town’s biggest-ever sensation, The Beatles.
"Those bloody awful songs: they’re so banal. ’Money can’t buy me love.’ God, isn’t that original! I thought they were awful. With the rise of Elvis Presley, I just ceased to be interested, the great American songbook came to an end. I remember one of my sisters taking me to see [the Elvis film] Jailhouse Rock. I was only 11, but I cringed with embarrassment all the way through it. I remember thinking, ’Doesn’t he look ridiculous, and that awful music!’"
One thing Terence Davies hasn’t budged a wit on is the absolute unredeemed awfulness of the American-inspired Stonewall gay revolution and its culture of pretty lads with huge penises. I asked if he had ever enjoyed a queer-themed film.
"They’re always obsessed with what people look like. They’re always very young, always going to the gym; I just don’t care about them. Whenever my fridge has broken down, no one has ever come to fix it and taken all their clothes off, and even if they did, I’d probably be so embarrassed, be British and pretend not to notice.
"It’s the reason I became celibate. I hate being gay, it’s ruined my life, I’ll never, never accept it. I just don’t like the whole gay scene. I went to a couple of clubs once and I thought, ’If this is the way it is, I’d sooner be on my own and lonely.’"