In Terence Davies’ screen adaptation of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Davies plunges us into Hester’s memories, nudging us to accept her interpretation of events while providing the necessary evidence to doubt her perspective. This is the sixth and final feature in our Special Issue on Davies’ A Quiet Passion, which you can read in full here.
Listen to us discuss The Deep Blue Sea on the Seventh Row podcast.
For Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), the tragic heroine of The Deep Blue Sea, nothing is worse than the thundering sounds of everyday minutiae. Dinners dominated by the sounds of cutlery and china clinking eventually pushed her to abscond from her comfortable, posh life. But when the film opens, the soundscape is filled with Hester’s suicide preparations: the click of the lock on the door sliding into place, the clink of her coins falling into the gas meter. As Hester reclines and waits, she remembers the end of her marriage, to her gentle but boring husband Lord Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), and the deliriously romantic beginning of her affair with the former RAF pilot, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). The camera circles around Hester’s and Freddie’s naked, entwined bodies in bed. But screenwriter-director Terence Davies tells us what Hester can’t see by repeating the shot, this time scanning Hester’s body on the ground as she waits to die: the affair may have brought her back to life, but it also killed her.For Hester Collyer, nothing is worse than the thundering sounds of everyday minutiae.Click To Tweet
Davies adapted The Deep Blue Sea from Terence Rattigan’s play of the same name. Rattigan’s play is a surprisingly funny, linear piece that unfolds over the course of a single day in 1950, beginning with Hester’s failed suicide attempt. The play is set entirely in one room — the depressing post-war flat Hester shares with Freddie in a less than desirable neighbourhood in London — where Hester’s peace gets constantly interrupted by her neighbours, her suddenly concerned husband, and finally, her confrontations with Freddie. But on film, Davies pares down Rattigan’s witty dialogue and secondary characters, focusing instead on evoking Hester’s feelings. Davies’ most drastic change is the introduction of flashbacks, interrupting the events of the present with scenes from Hester’s memories that immerse us fully in her perspective — until it colours ours.
The inciting incident of both the play and the film is that Hester attempts suicide because Freddie forgets her birthday; he’s too busy playing golf on a weekend away. When he accidentally discovers her suicide note, it’s the catalyst they need to face the reality of their doomed relationship. But the play is equally about Britain in the wake of World War II, in the midst of social change and the realisation that life is temporary. Davies evokes life during wartime through Hester’s flashbacks and uses rich, period-specific interiors, always visible in every frame, to evoke this specific historical milieu. In both the play and the film, Hester’s story serves as a metaphor for post-war life: traumatized by the past, leaving death in her wake, but looking toward a new and previously impossible future.
Davies’ film adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea consists of two superimposed structures: Hester’s perspective of events, and Davies’ narrative structure of the film. Davies juxtaposes Hester’s memories with her present reality to distort our own view of the present — by plunging us into her memories, Davies nudges us to accept her interpretation of events. Slowly, throughout the course of the film, Davies subtly reveals that we’ve been led astray by Hester’s unreliable narration, which has been warped by her sorrow and disappointments. He provides the evidence we need, but he never foregrounds other characters’ perspectives, leaving it to the viewer to decipher the truth of what’s really happening.Slowly, Davies subtly reveals that we’ve been led astray by Hester’s unreliable narration.Click To Tweet
Hester’s memories only ever represent emotional extremes, which encourages us to see events through her warped perspective. In flashbacks, Freddie is either the perfect lover or a callous, juvenile jerk, while her husband is cold and emotionally stifling. But Davies also reveals, through these memories, what Hester has blocked out from her version of events: her husband’s kindness, the comforts of their home, or their intellectual connection. Hester’s memory of a quiet evening in their lavish home is dominated by the anxious swelling of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin — Lord Collyer is working and ignoring her, and she’s bored. Tears fill Hester’s eyes, and the light from the fire flickers across her pained face. She only remembers the trial of withstanding her mother-in-law’s thinly veiled cruelty even though Davies also shows us Collyer gently negotiating peace. It’s only when Collyer visits Hester in the present tense that even she must acknowledge their mutual affection: the conversation flows, with a give-and-take that’s never replicated elsewhere in the film.Hester’s memories of Freddie, and Davies’ choice of when to reveal them, skew our view of Freddie.Click To Tweet
Hester’s memories of Freddie, and Davies’ choice of when to reveal them, skew our view of Freddie just as they do hers. After Freddie runs away from their argument about her suicide note, Hester explains to her husband that Freddie never loved her, so his love couldn’t have diminished: “zero minus zero is still zero.” In the next scene, Hester remembers a heated argument with Freddie at an art gallery when she responded to his inappropriate childish jokes by accusing him of immaturity. Proving her right, he threw a temper tantrum, screaming about his war heroism — irrelevant to their argument, but he’s still frozen, emotionally, in 1940, so it’s the first thing he reaches for. These back-to-back scenes ensure that Freddie’s puerility and supposed indifference are fresh in our minds when, in the next scene, Hester confronts Freddie outside the pub he’s run to in the wake of reading her suicide note, and tries to persuade him to come to reconcile.Davies invites us to notice what Hester can’t see.Click To Tweet
Hester’s memory has primed us to misread Freddie’s behaviour outside the pub as callous and childish, but Davies’ framing emphasizes the gulf between Hester’s perspective and what Freddie is actually feeling. When Freddie screams, “OH MY GOD! I HATE BEING TANGLED UP IN OTHER PEOPLE’S EMOTIONS,” Davies hangs on a closeup of Hester’s tearful face, leaving his face a mystery. But when Freddie adds, “I CAN’T BE BLOODY ROMEO ALL THE TIME,” Davies shoots him in a medium shot — so that we can just barely make out the tears in his eyes. Hiddleston’s performance here reveals Freddie as a struggling, caring man who’s in over his head. As Hester begs him to reconsider, Davies holds on Hester’s closeup, with Freddie’s back turned and his shoulder the only part of him still in the frame. We can’t see his reaction, so we feel the cold shoulder Hester feels. But Davies also invites us to notice what Hester can’t see: Freddie stays. He hesitates. He thinks. He doesn’t look at her because he can’t, but he also doesn’t leave because he loves her.Hester's journey is an active process of sorting through her memories to come to terms with her choices and her life. Click To Tweet
In Rattigan’s play, Hester’s journey was about surviving the day to live to see the next one. In Davies’ film, it’s also an active process of sorting through her memories to come to terms with her choices and her life. Her outward journey complements this inward one and requires her to walk down from her second floor apartment, into the blitz-ruined streets in search of Freddie. Only after he discovers her suicide note can she remember unpleasant parts of their relationship, like the fight at the art gallery, which was both an example of a quarrel resolved and a reminder that they were never perfect for each other, that the passion she admired in him stemmed from immaturity. When he rejects her again this time outside the pub, she descends further, into the depths of the tube station to contemplate and then reject suicide. Being on the platform triggers her memory of taking shelter there with strangers during an air raid, singing “Molly Malone” together. Life seemed precarious — and yet she survived. So she lets the train pass. Equally, her final reckoning has to happen in her apartment, after she’s painstakingly climbed up the stairs of the tube station and her building, physically pulling herself out of the gutter, readying herself to face what comes next, even if it’s not what she thinks she wants.Hester’s journey is about surviving the day to live to see the next one. Click To Tweet
The final act of the film is almost the same as the final act of the play, unfolding in real time, in Hester’s apartment, as Hester and Freddie say goodbye. It’s the longest time we spend outside of Hester’s head. It means Freddie is laid bare, unfiltered by Hester’s depressive thoughts. In its last minutes, their relationship has been reduced to the same insupportable quiet that Hester’s marriage once had: the sound of breathing, of shoes being brushed, of a suitcase clasping shut. The pauses between lines are excruciating. Hester can barely get the words out, breathing deeply before speaking; each new word marches them closer to the end of their story. When Freddie, with tears in his eyes, apologizes for not being able to be what she needs, he’s full of love and affection. He’s leaving because it’s the only way to save them both, but it’s killing him, too. When he walks out the door without looking back, it’s because he’s not sure he’ll be able to leave if he does. And Hester knows she needs to let him: when he forgets his gloves, she considers chasing after him, but doesn’t.In this one day, everything has changed for Hester. And yet nothing has changed in the world outside.Click To Tweet
At the very end, Davies echoes the film’s opening images in reverse. Hester turns the gas heater on, and the camera holds on it for a few seconds, as it did at the beginning, when it was her instrument of death. This time, it’s on for warmth. She takes another deep breath, steeling herself for what comes next, and opens the curtains, ready to start again. Davies’ camera watches her from outside her window, panning down the outside of her building, past the neighbours’ windows, with the morning forecast echoing, replacing the evening news that began the film. In this one day, everything has changed for Hester. And yet nothing has changed in the world outside. Her domestic drama is just one of many stories in a building, full of desperate people, that’s still standing next to the wreckage from the war.
Read the rest of our Special Issue on Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion here.