Thursday, April 19, 2012

Terence Davies: More poetry of pain

A look at what happens when a woman chooses sex over security.

If Terence Davies had made no other films but Distant Voice, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), he would have established himself as both a master craftsman and a ranking poet of existential sorrow. Davies, who grew up in Liverpool during the 1950s, turned his two semi-autobiographical movies into beautifully realized portraits of a moment in his life and in British history.

Many years ago, Davies came to Denver during what then was called the Denver International Film Festival and which since has been renamed the Starz Denver Film Festival. I did a filmed interview with Davies that I (as well as everyone in the room) still remembers, not because of me but because of the director's vulnerability and candor. Davies talked about the pain of being a gay man, something that no doubt was far more severe during his formative years than it is today. Now 66, Davies by no means has finished exploring pain and the lives of those who must endure it.

Davies's The Deep Blue Sea -- a belated adaptation of a 1952 Terence Rattigan play -- isn't nearly as powerful as the director's more autobiographical work, but it's steeped in just as much pain -- this time embodied in a woman (Rachel Weisz) who gives up everything to pursue her passion with a man who's incapable of reciprocating.

The story of Weisz's Hester Collyer, who leaves a well-established upper-class husband (Simon Russell Beale) for an affair with a former pilot (Tim Hiddleston) with no apparent future, probably had more shock value during post-war years when Britain was trying to regain its balance after a devastating and costly war.

And even supporters of Davies' work may have to admit that The Deep Blue Sea is burdened by a deep and nearly crippling languor, as if Davies wants every frame to weep for a character that never entirely gets her due.

As played by Weisz, Hester is both brave and doomed, a woman made to suffer for choosing sex over security. Poor Hester. She's abused by Hiddleston's Freddie Page, a man who can't seem to get past the trumped-up bonhomie of his war years. Freddie has no appreciation for the sacrifice Hester has made.

As played by Beale, Hester's husband tempers his initial jealousy with understanding. He makes his case to her, begging her to return for her own good; i.e., for material comfort and social ease. But Hester, who opens the movie with a suicide attempt, is not about to capitulate.

Those familiar with Davies's movies will note the presence of one of his trademark touches: At one point, the lower middle-class characters break into song at a neighborhood pub, a central gathering place and source of escape for them.

Davies isn't interested in condemning either of the men in Hester's life. It's possible that he regards Hester as someone born in the wrong time. Twenty or so years later, her choice would have seemed neither shocking nor especially fateful.

As Davies did with his more personal movies, he treats Hester's painful existence as a source of cinematic poetry. The Deep Blue Sea isn't entirely successful, but Weisz yields herself courageously and unreservedly to the material, and Davies slowly runs a finger over the kind of emotional wounds that never really scar over.

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