Terence Davies’ newest film, “The Deep Blue Sea,” takes place, like much of his work, in post-World War II England. In it, Rachel Weisz plays Hester Collyer, a woman who abandons her passionless marriage to a wealthy barrister (Simon Russell Beale) for a torrid affair with a troubled former Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hiddleston), the consequences of which plunge her into despair. When we got a chance to speak with the director, a natural storyteller with a mischievous sense of humor and infectious laugh, we would never have guessed he suffered from an acute case of homesickness for his native U.K., a fact he admitted toward the end of our time together.
We started by asking him about societal differences between England in the 1950’s versus 2012. “What I think people don't understand is how traumatic the war was for Britain. When the war was over, Britain didn't get very much out of it – [she] lost her empire — or let it go. We were a great power — what completely shattered that was that [although] we’d won the war, we were financially broke.”
Indeed, rationing continued until 1954. England didn’t finish repaying its debts to the U.S. until 2006, right before Tony Blair came to office – more than half-a-century after the end of the war. “There was a great deal of anger and resentment. What had we fought the war for? We’d actually fought it for a very moral reason, to keep freedom alive. And that was one of the last great hurrahs for the empire.” But not all changes were for the worse. “It was the first time the entire country had come together. We fought the Nazis alone for eighteen months, and it bred in the whole country a wonderful sense of community.”
Still, Davies remembers well the struggles of those times, a period that hasn’t always been accurately portrayed on the silver screen. “I grew up then. I know what it felt like — not just looked like. Very often, it’s recreated very badly – all the furniture’s pristine, for example. You could not afford furniture — people didn't have that money. You might have had a radio in your house if you were lucky. Radiogram if you were very lucky. Lots of people still had gas. We had electricity, but only in one room. At the end of the ‘50s, [when] we bought a radiogram, the whole of the family had to put money towards it. We put the deposit down and paid it off weekly, the entire family. We had one record — Sammy Davis, Jr. singing ‘That Old Black Magic.’”
We mentioned that a whole generation’s worth of black-and-white films, most of which portray an idyllic postwar America in the 1950’s, can make it easy for Americans to forget how difficult life was for the British – and most Europeans, for that matter – in the aftermath of the war. “The American economy had doubled — it was worth twice what it was before the beginning of the war. So it does give films made in the ‘50s a glow. I’m not a great James Dean fan, but I do think he’s very good in ‘East of Eden.’ I remember seeing it with my family and we thought, ‘He’s studying at university, he’s got a car, they’ve got a big house, they’re living next to door to Natalie Wood — what’s wrong with him?’ We thought America was like that. I look at it now of course — even the exteriors are on a sound stage.”
Terence Rattigan, the playwright behind “The Deep Blue Sea,” was a major force in English theatre in the twentieth century, especially from the ‘30s through the ‘50s. At one point, he was the world’s highest-paid screenwriter. He’s now enjoying a resurgence in English theatre, following what would have been his hundredth birthday last June. “I’ve seen very little of the plays performed on stage. I knew him by film – the 1952 version of ‘The Browning Version’ is the best. The Burt Lancaster version of ‘Separate Tables’ — that’s very, very good indeed – Rattigan co-wrote [it] with a man named John Gay,” and it attracted Oscar nominations for both of them. In Davies’ opinion, the films are actually better than the plays.
Ultimately, Davies chose from the Rattigan canon a tale whose imagery was not seared onto his brain. “I couldn't remember anything about [the film version of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’] because I was only ten years old.” The 1956 film starred Vivian Leigh and Kenneth More. “Then we saw ten minutes of it on YouTube, and it’s just dreadful! They just filmed the play – what’s the point?” he said, going on to explain explain what drew him to the material. “At first I was aware of how unremarkable the story is — it’s really almost trivial. After I read it a few times, I then realized what it was really about, which is love. It's a ménage à trois of people who want a kind of love that the other person can’t give — now that’s universal, and that’s what interested me.”
“Between the devil and the deep blue sea” is a more dramatic version of the more widely used metaphor today, “between a rock and a hard place.” The former seems somehow sexier, more dangerous, and Davies agrees. “ ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’ is more expressive. It’s more eloquent — because what it means in a way is, what do you decide? How do you decide? And what if you decide the wrong thing? It then takes on, if not quite the world of [T.S. Eliot's] 'Prufrock' at least is a nod in that direction: the terror of being alive. And that is awful. If you've ever despaired that much — and I’m sorry to say I have — there are times when you think: the struggle’s too great; I can’t do it any more. And you long for some way out, some sort of solace. But ironically — and what I find extraordinary about love – [Hester] remembers what it was like during the war, and can’t do it.”
One of the moments Hester recalls is huddling with her husband among the crowds in London’s Tube as the city was bombed — one of the most memorable sequences in the film. They softly sing a lovely Irish folk song called “Cockles and Mussels” to allay their fear. “Irish folk songs, like some English folk songs, like ‘Oh Waly, Waly’ — have a plangency that Jewish songs have. They have that throb in their voice somehow. We learned it in primary school. That and ‘Old Folks at Home’: ‘Way down upon the Swannee River…’ And we were in Liverpool, for God’s sake!” He laughs heartily. “I always thought it was desperately sad. It used to make me cry.”
For 72 nights in a row London was bombed: about 30,000 Londoners perished in the mayhem. Liverpool, where Davies is from, was bombed as well. “It was just pounded and pounded and pounded — had they invaded in 1941, we’d have been occupied.” Our final question concerned the movie’s many quiet moments, during which the viewer can become transfixed by the most mundane of sounds: tea being poured, for instance, or simple voices in the background.
“[Back then] there was very little extraneous sound. People didn't have cars — they couldn't afford them. When I was growing up, there was a pub at the end of every street and my family would go around seven and didn't come back until about half ten. I used to sit on my own and listen to the house settle into silence. Silence is very, very powerful. Hardly used now because people are terrified to have it [in film]. When all you hear are just little things. And I’ve always been fascinated by little details — which in themselves are not important, but they carry a great deal of power.”
“The Deep Blue Sea” opens in select theaters on March 23rd.