We Sing, But Not Ourselves: Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea

By Michael Sicinski

Is Terence Davies a radical conservative? Often one of the signs of a great artist is his or her ability to thwart the comfortable compartmentalization of our thinking, to dislodge the habits with which we navigate our ordinary existence. We are accustomed to thinking of a cinematic “mainstream,” organized around surface realism and a classical Hollywood format, and a “counter-cinema” that departs from these traditions in various ways. But one of the concomitant assumptions of much film criticism, handed down from previous generations of critics and scholars, is that these formal orientations go hand in glove with the social and political valence of the films in question.

But this isn’t just a received idea. There’s a reason that the writers at Positif and 1970s Cahiers, Screen and Ciné-Tracts, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, and their contemporary acolytes, have largely laboured under this assumption: it is usually true. And, as Daney so aptly demonstrated in his classic analysis of Pontecorvo, it is most often the case that when artists, even leftist artists, attempt to mobilize progressive messages within conventional structures, their efforts tend to reveal an underlying conservatism on closer inspection. Even if one harbours skepticism about the idea that an artwork, or even an artist, can possess an “unconscious,” one needs look no further than information theory to validate this point of view: placing a counterintuitive message as a signal within a dominant format is likely to reduce that unexpected message to noise, the format itself becoming the (blaring) signal.

So necessarily, we have not yet abandoned these guideposts, the “normal” and the “aberrant” cinema, one tending to be aligned with dominant interests, the other with if not necessarily progressive, at least minoritarian ones. Terence Davies’ films have always been fascinating, radical departures not only from conventional narrative cinema but from the primary traditions of British art cinema as well. But looking at his latest, the Terence Rattigan adaptation The Deep Blue Sea, and taking it as an occasion to look back a bit, we can see how Davies has forged his own strange, singular path.

Davies’ films, in their own way, are indicative of the social fissures of our moment. How is it that he can be an aesthetic maverick who so clearly longs for a return to the older, lost values of pre-1960s Britain, of his wartime and postwar childhood? Who is this gay man who, to judge from his films alone, seems to pine for a cultural moment that, as dominant historical narratives would have it at least, is among the previous century’s most conformist and repressive? Davies’ cinema reflects both a desire for a social and cultural wholeness that is at least partly imaginary, and an overwhelming sense of isolation and agony, the palpability of being an outsider to that larger world (The Long Day Closes, 1992), or being its small, powerless victim (Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988).

Davies’ penchant for nostalgia in those early films was always deeply complicated. Distant Voices is an avant-garde masterwork that could be characterized as an example of the “distance montage” advocated by Armenian experimentalist Artavazd Peleshian. The film virtually toggles back and forth between the unspeakable brutality of Davies’ family life under the reign of his tyrannical father (played by the late Pete Postlethwaite) and the vein of joy and solidarity that he, his mother (Freda Dowie) and siblings could tap into through popular songs of the 1940s and ‘50s. Similarly, The Long Day Closes is a kind of melancholy filmic locket of the lonely boy Davies was, grappling with homosexual feelings that isolated him from the broader social sphere (especially his would-be school chums) while finding some solace in the movies, an imagined community of art and glamour; it is also a highly idealized, symbiotic portrait of the bond between the child and his mother (Marjorie Yates). More than other Davies films, Long Day nods to kitchen sinkism; it’s the outsider’s gaze that continually pulls it back.

What one does find as a thrumming energy within these films is Davies’ quest for belonging—the unifying power of those songs—writ large as a social programme, an unreconstructed form of anti-royalist leftism that paradoxically favours the national social bond over the outlaw desires and discomfiting needs of the marginalized. When Davies returned to the world stage of cinema in 2008 with Of Time and the City, his personal essay film about life, culture and change in his native Liverpool, many commentators were surprised at the director’s candour regarding his preference for the old ways. Yes, he took the politically “appropriate” potshots at Queen Elizabeth II, and as one can see from both the text and subtext of any Davies feature, the man’s sympathies are always squarely with the working classes, although less those who protest than those who grit their teeth and muddle through, seeing another “long day” through to its “close.” But Davies’ acknowledgment that, by his lights, The Beatles ruined not only music but probably Liverpool itself, seemed to indicate how he had broadened his penchant for the things of his youth into a programme of sorts.

His recent interview with Donald Clarke of the Irish Times, in which he not only lambastes Elvis and Dylan but, more controversially, claims that “being gay has ruined my life,” clarified in broad bullet points whatever cultural politics Davies merely alluded to in Of Time and the City. By his own reckoning, his gay desire made him marginal to the mainstream of British society, and it is not inconceivable to think that, on a broader, trans-individual level, Davies might even see homosexuality as a rift in the social fabric (he would be wrong); but thus far he hasn’t said so. Nevertheless, his claims of celibacy and professed “loath[ing]” of his sexuality are crucial elements of a deep-seated conservatism, and deserve more thorough analysis than I am prepared to undertake here. But, if we understand that Davies identifies himself—aesthetically, politically, and sexually—as an outsider, while evidently valuing social cohesion and exhibiting a deep nostalgia for rituals of belonging throughout his cinema, we can perhaps comprehend these contradictory impulses, within the films if not the man.

In Davies’ two most “mainstream” films, the two literary adaptations, he has gravitated to material with one very significant common aspect. In both The House of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea, women who are very clearly circumscribed by prevailing social conventions choose to flout those conventions and act as independent agents; in contemporary terms, they take feminist initiative. In Davies’ achingly beautiful film of Edith Wharton’s Mirth, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) tumbles in status, from a widely desired and appropriately “useless” socialite to a scrounging labourer and, eventually, a pauper dead from consumption. She misses, or more accurately squanders, I suppose, her chance at both happiness and social standing with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) by choosing to withhold evidence that would damage his reputation—evidence that would at the same time have reversed the misperception that Lily was a trollop and a homewrecker, a lie that forced her out of high society in the first place.

In a distinct but related manner, the crux of The Deep Blue Sea pertains to a woman’s existential commitment to an ideal, even unto death. In the period just following the end of World War II, Hester (Rachel Weisz) is the wife of William (Simon Russell Beale), a somewhat older judge. But she has an affair with and soon after leaves William for a young ex-flyboy, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). As Hester makes clear to William and to the viewer, her drive to be with Freddie is overwhelmingly carnal; she is taking it upon herself to act not unlike a man in the proverbial midlife crisis. In time, Davies shows us that her decision was not only impulsive but foolish: Freddie is an insensitive lout who goes drinking and golfing with his mates, forgets her birthday, and is so utterly uncomprehending about what Hester has sacrificed for him that it pushes her to attempt suicide.

By contrast, William is shown to be a thoroughly decent man, even up through his and Hester’s final goodbye. Granted, it’s not surprising to find that an artist of Davies’ intelligence affords his film’s “Baxter” considerably more dignity than your average American rom-com. But there’s more to it than this. Hester’s decision, made from a place of personal passion, is one that Davies appears to respect but ultimately reject. The filmmaker’s viewpoint is typically complex, and cannot be read simply from the film’s plot or characterizations. However, The Deep Blue Sea ultimately does seem to have much more sympathy with William’s straitlaced, practical Britishness, his struggle to convince Hester that their relationship is worth saving, even if it consists chiefly of warm conversations, muddling through the day’s agenda, and periodically steeling each other against the horrors of William’s mother (Barbara Jefford). But if any one scene or statement in the film stands out as Davies’ (or Rattigan’s) ultimate judgment, it’s most likely that of Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), the working-class proprietress of the low-rent boarding house where Hester and Freddie have shacked up. “A lot of rubbish is talked about love,” she sternly lectures Hester. “You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s ass, or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves, and lettin’ ‘em keep their dignity so you can both go on.”

Like Lily Bart, Hester holds fast to her unconventional ideals, but Davies shows these women to be fatally crippled by the sin of pride. Rather than accepting small, occasional happinesses within their circumscribed roles, they thought that they had the right to lead extraordinary lives, that they themselves might be extraordinary. While neither The House of Mirth nor The Deep Blue Sea take any pleasure in the downfall of their heroines, both of whom are depicted as bright, sympathetic, and possessed of an uncommon integrity, the women’s placement of the passions of the self over and above the cohesion of the social order cannot stand. This is Davies’ conservatism as it manifests itself in his art; his cinema primarily values the social fabric, even as it mourns for and even identifies with those it can never accommodate.

But to work our way back through the densely woven complexities of this conservatism, we must understand two primary ideas, ones to which I alluded earlier in this essay but which I can now directly illustrate with reference to The Deep Blue Sea. The first is the fact that Davies’ conservative mode, though it may marginalize feminist aspiration and thwart gay longing, does so from a convoluted position of nostalgia and regret. It can in part be understood as unreconstructed Old Labour leftism, which sees concerns of “identity” as a confusing distraction from the imperative of class solidarity that is evident in all Davies’ work and public statements. But it should also be recognized not just as a generational idiosyncrasy but as something nearly psychoanalytic in Davies’ films—a longing for the unified identity and purpose, the proud cross-class, cross-political, cross-generational moment of wartime and the immediate postwar Allied victory. (It is this wartime spirit that Freddie pointedly makes a mockery of, by loudly proclaiming how much fun he had in the war.)

In much the same way that The Long Day Closes depicts a retroactively idealized mother-son dyad that can only exist in the emotional deferred action of Freudian Nachträglichkeit, Davies’ cinema tends to posit a “Britain” that exists only in his memories. Paradoxically, the fact that he never felt he could truly “belong” there only made that world that much more perfect. (In this regard, Davies is the anti-Derek Jarman.) But what then accounts for Davies’ poetic innovations, his formal departures from the very “norm” he seems to want to uphold in other areas? Again, part of what makes Davies such a fascinating artist is that his body of work is rife with such rich contradictions. If we recall that his most experimental works—the early short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) and the first two features—are also the ones that truck most explicitly in reverie and nostalgia, we can begin to think more seriously about what it means to consider Davies a radical conservative, or if you prefer, a representative of an anti-modernist avant-garde.

Without a doubt, the most formally daring passages in all of Davies’ films, and the most unfailingly gorgeous and affecting, are the song sequences. These paeans to pub culture, or to the humdrum everyday lives of housewives, are romantic tributes to social solidarity; while the existence of the rebel or the outlier is tragic or hideous, it is joyous when mainstream Britain unites under the banner of the Union Jack and the hit parade. Davies makes room for these bold poetic moments even in his more broadly narrative films, and their appearance is telling. In The Deep Blue Sea, after Hester and Freddie have the fight at the pub that will precipitate their breakup, she runs down into the tube station. The sound of a departing train sends her into a Proustian recollection of taking shelter in the tube during a blitzkrieg. Londoners from all walks of life are huddled together under minimal lamplight, terrified, not knowing how long the ordeal will continue. A young man begins singing “Cockles and Mussels,” and soon everyone in the tunnel is slowly, mournfully singing along. Davies tracks right to left; the camera lights on a shivering Hester and William, dazed and holding one another. Here, we have the total coalescence of everything Davies’ cinema advocates: the passionless but kind couple coheres in a moment of basic survival, which for the Britons of World War II was, in fact, the stuff of day-to-day life. What’s more, this bond is a small node within a much larger social and national unity. As if to make the point clear as crystal, Davies lifts this extraordinary/mundane moment out of the fabric of the film through stark lighting, deliberate camera movement, and the sheer beauty of the song’s performance—an experimentalist contrast with the relative realism that surrounds it.

When Davies advocates “normal love,” he is not kidding the way Jack Smith was. Although I have tried to clarify an aspect of Davies’ films that is seldom addressed, I want to make it clear that their valorization of social norms in no way diminishes their formal acuity or their affective power. Davies is quite obviously an artist at odds with both his times and with what it means to be part of a marginalized group, systematically excluded from absolute belonging with the dominant culture. It is this anxious dislocation, I believe, that makes his films so deeply humane, and The Deep Blue Sea is no exception. I began this essay by reconsidering the critical history of mainstream vs. counter-cinemas, and the fact that radical forms so often accompany radical ideas. We should perhaps expand this critical assessment so as to account for yet another counter-trend, the radical conservatives, whose ranks include not only Terence Davies but also artists as diverse as Aleksandr Sokurov, Gaspar Noé, Otar Iosseliani, Terrence Malick, and Vincent Gallo.