Saturday, April 21, 2012

After the war

Terence Davies’ career illustrates both the glory and the cruelty of a life devoted to cinema. He’s often regarded as one of the greatest living British filmmakers, yet at the age of 66 he’s only managed to complete six full-length films. I recently rewatched his 1992 The Long Day Closes, a stunning evocation of his childhood in a Liverpool tenement, embodying the odd connections and random choices of memory without ever becoming chaotic or fanciful. Like many of his works, it’s suffused in movies and popular songs, commemorating their mysterious allure and strangeness, how they colour an existence even as they confirm its day-to-day claustrophobia. In 2000, Davies moved onto a larger stage, using major stars like Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd in an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Although less striking than the earlier works, it’s very moving for its quietly intense focus on its poor protagonist, immaculately charting the quiet cruelty of her environment and her escalating failure to navigate it. Watching it now, this impression is heightened by the knowledge of Davies’ own subsequent experience; unable to get a film made for almost a decade, he’s described it as a very lean and difficult time.

The Deep Blue Sea

In 2008 he made a documentary essay about his home city, Of Time and the City. The film was well-received and has some wonderful passages, but I found it almost insufferable at times; Davies’ narration often just seems plain crabby, no matter how sympathetic you are to his disappointments. Still, it set the stage for a return to narrative cinema with The Deep Blue Sea, which has now been released here. An adaptation of a play by Terence Rattigan, set in the early fifties, it focuses on Hester, who’s left her husband, a senior judge and knight of the realm, to live in threadbare circumstances with her lover Freddie, despite knowing he doesn’t truly return her feelings. As the film starts, she composes a suicide note to Freddie, then turns on the gas, lies on the bed, prepares to die; her mind (or the film’s mind, as it were) travels almost wordlessly over the events that brought her there. She survives, but when Freddie learns of the attempt, it knocks away what little commitment he still holds to their affair.

The opening caption actually identifies the date as “around 1950,” which immediately signals how the film, although highly focused on Hester’s individual story, is also preoccupied more broadly with post-WW2 dissatisfaction and displacement. Hester remarks that Freddie has never been as happy as he was at the height of the war, where he won medals for his heroism as a pilot; he’s an embodiment of how Britain’s self-satisfaction at its success at fighting Hitler (and at the undoubted moral righteousness of that cause), and its nostalgia for the rituals of the war years, blunted its ability for growth and self-reflection in the subsequent decades. Hester’s husband, defined by class and convention and propriety, embodies a different aspect of this deep-freeze; a superb scene where he and Hester visit his mother, presented as a flashback, illustrates the extreme rigidity of what constitutes acceptable interaction in those circles, with even a modest expression of provocation viewed as offensive. The superb British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, seldom seen in movies, conveys perfectly the character’s growing sympathy for Hester’s actions, even perhaps a quiet admiration for them, and the pain of his resulting self-reflection.

Rachel Weisz

Among the actors though, the film belongs to Rachel Weisz, who even though she has an Oscar, might be the most underappreciated great actress of her generation (she contributed greatly to a recent underrated Canadian film, The Whistleblower). She certainly conveys Hester’s desperation, but more crucially, her intelligence, her ability to diagnose and rationally describe her hopelessness even as she’s consumed by it. She seems completely attuned to Davies’ intentions without being a mere vessel for them, and as a result the film is often most mesmerizing in its most modest, unadorned moments. Near the end she polishes Freddie’s shoes for him, another ritual, taking the brush out of the tin box where it’s kept, cleaning one shoe and then another, keeping them off the table (it’s bad luck) – I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the passage carries total visual and aural authenticity (I’m sure Davies’ paid great attention to the scraping of the box-lid and the crackling of the shoes), true to the huge underlying tragedy, that Hester will likely relive this memory every day of her life.
At times, Davies evokes the broader collages of his earlier films. Hester runs into the underground, stands on the platform waiting for the train, approaching in the distance; suddenly rubble is falling onto the tracks, and we’re back in the war years; a young man is singing Molly Malone and the camera tracks past a platform filled with people waiting out an alert, eventually finding Hester standing close to her husband, and we’re jolted back to the present as the train speeds by. It’s a stunning sequence on its own terms, and entirely true to the tensions of memory and influence operating on Hester. One’s only regret about The Deep Blue Sea is that it might be even more intoxicating to receive a Terence Davies film crafted more fully in this vein; maybe we’ll be lucky, because his next project is reportedly coming together much more quickly.

Act of creation

That’s not to suggest the current film is somehow narrow or restricted. It’s true that it only has a handful of characters, and the majority of it takes place in a few interior settings: Davies even emphasizes these limits by crafting largely symmetrical opening and closing shots. But as we know, the notional size and scope of many “bigger” movies is merely a matter of puffing up a nutrition-parched dish with empty calories. Throughout the film, in a way that’s rare now, you feel a vital guiding presence alongside the camera, totally immersed in the act of creation, working closely and humanely with his collaborators. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if it were more angry and bitter than it is, in the vein of Of Time and the City; after all, Britain’s perverted laws and conventions destroyed an untold number of lives (the film’s subtext certainly isn’t confined to women like Hester – the playwright Rattigan was gay, as is Davies). But instead it’s a film of immense compassion. And when you think of that phrase – of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – although it connotes being stuck between hopeless alternatives, it’s also intensely poetic, suggesting one’s inner pain extends to touch the loneliest depths of this world, and the dark heart of the next. It exactly sums up Terence Davies’ gorgeous capacity, that in his hands the smallest of films feels like the largest.

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