It’s not “nostalgia” for a cinema of the past that haunts “The Deep Blue Sea,” director Terence Davies explained, but a “yearning.” That purely cinematic ache pulsing through the British auteur’s latest film, a hushed, melancholy exploration of love through the eyes of the impossibly romantic Hester (Rachel Weisz), is something that seems to have emerged unconsciously. Davies, who has always been an autobiographical filmmaker (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “Of Time and the City”), culls from his memories of England as a young boy to tell a story of repression and self-realization, based on the play by Terence Rattigan. In the film, Hester leaves her affluent husband for another man, but that still doesn’t satisfy her.
Ryan Lattanzio: Hester attempts suicide in the first scene because her lover has not come home. She situates herself in front of a gas stove, like Sylvia Plath. Is this a romantic way to die?
Terence Davies: It wasn’t a glamorous way to kill yourself. Suicide was an offense. You could go to prison for it. Strictly speaking, you should have told the police. It’s not a very pleasant way to die. Any self-inflicted death must be horrible even if it’s relatively painless. Just to get to that level of despair must be just awful. I don’t think it’s an act of cowardice. I think it’s an act of bravery.
RL: An act of bravery?
TD: I’ve never wanted to kill myself because there’s some implied hope that perhaps it will improve, and it usually does in the most unexpected way. And that’s what is so wonderful about life really: even if it’s hard, something wonderful, a small thing, can happen. It takes an act of enormous courage to say, “I’ll just end life.” What it does leave of course is the aftermath for other people. It’s an act of bravery but it does leave a desolate legacy for those who’ve got to clean up after you.
RL: All your films have dealt with repression of various forms. How is that being handled here?
TD: I don’t see it as repression. I see it as forces you can’t control. There were things that were very comforting, the very fact that there was ritual. You did things on certain days. I used to find that terribly comforting. You go to confession on Saturday at 4 o’clock. Mum went to the washhouse on Thursday. It was very ritualized, but repression very often is within oneself because if you really want to be outrageous, you have to disregard convention. Most people don’t. I’m the dullest, most conventional person of all. I wouldn’t dare of breaking rules. Ex-Catholic, you see. Hester does something that women simply didn’t do. If you were middle class, you didn’t leave your husband. So she does something completely out of the ordinary, and it’s done because of love. Repression is very often self-repression, and that may be influenced by the way society sees you. The hardest repression to fight is that which has been self-imposed.
RL: It doesn’t seem like Hester would take comfort in her repression. Her love for love doesn’t fit into ritual.
TD: She leaves her very comfortable life because she finds sexual love. Before she met Freddie, there probably wasn’t very much sex. It was culture and companionship and shared ideas. People, both men and women, didn’t know a lot about sex, and a lot of them went into marriage really naïve, and that would have been enough. And unfortunately, she discovers sex at 40.
RL: I sense nostalgia for a cinema of yesteryear. So many contemporary films rely on frantic imagery, and your films feel like a long, hot bath. Tell me how you create that effect.
TD: I don’t know how I create it, but there is a love for those films from the ’50s. In that period, films had a glow. I can remember there were eight cinemas within walking distance from my house. I can remember where I saw them, what route I took, and where I sat. It’s that vivid. They have a restraint, which I do find very moving. Being able to say something quite elliptically but powerfully. Now you can say anything, and the first thing that goes out the window is subtlety. That glow, and I don’t think it’s nostalgia, because nostalgia feels sentimental, is a yearning.
RL: This isn’t the first time that you’ve adapted literature. What happens when you turn a play into a film?
TD: Whether it’s a play or novel, what you’ve got to do is capture not just the story and its subjects, but the tone of it, which is something that is very often lost. It’s trying to get to the subtext, but keep it cinematic. What you can do with cinema is extraordinary magic. You can take a huge event and bring it down to 20 seconds. You can take a tiny event and turn into into a 10-minute scene. That’s extraordinary. And the fact that you just stuck one image with another — and the ambiguities that arise between those cuts — is very exciting. You just feel it. Take even a silent image, and put a sound on it, like a ticking clock, suddenly it has completely changed. You take that same image and put a fire engine bell on it, it’s a different image. I very rarely go to the cinema now because I can’t suspend my disbelief.
RL: So how do you go about suspending our disbelief as we watch your films?
TD: You can’t know how because you can’t second-guess the audience. You can only know after-the-fact, if you’re standing at the back of the cinema and you ask when they all come out. I remember one woman asking, “Why are your films so bloody slow and depressing?” I said, “It’s a gift.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.