The credits are rolling; a clock is ticking; a woman's voice is heard, upper-middle class, declaring that, this time, she really is going to die. And so the music begins—the second movement of Samuel Barber's richly romantic violin concerto. The camera pans left and tracks backwards from a dark, difficult-to-make-out street scene. Then, slowly, magically, it begins to glide up, up, up the façade of an utterly typical London terrace house, as the music continues to swell. Finally, as the music reaches its first crescendo, and the camera comes to a halt, we see the haunted face of Rachel Weisz at the top window. And then we dissolve into the past: a man (Simon Russell Beale—Lord William Collyer), and a woman (Rachel Weisz—Hester, his wife) sit opposite each other, in silence. He smiles, gently; she returns his smile. The music is uncertain, fragile. The violins are poised as if in anticipation. Her eyes are starting to fill. And then the haunting melody begins—and just as it begins the tears start to fall down her face. If there has been a more perfect union of music and image in the history of cinema, I have never seen it. The simplicity and beauty of the moment is quite breathtaking.
We see further scenes, culminating in a quite remarkably tender and intimate love scene (which features the really quite glorious spectacle of a liberated and libidinous Hester licking Freddie's back). The camera circles; the effect is at once romantic and vaguely sickening. The music draws to a close. Hester is on the floor—is she dead? Voices are heard, distorted, almost ghost-like. And then—SLAP! Hester is violently jolted back to the reality she now has to face.
So ends the overture to Terence Davies's latest film, an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play "The Deep Blue Sea". It is a glorious, singular opening, which matches practically nothing in cinema, and certainly nothing in Rattigan. His play takes place in one room on one day. Davies shatters these classical unities into shards of memory, which the viewer must piece together into new wholes—just as Hester must go in search of her lost time, to gain some sort of control over her own troubled consciousness. How did she get here? Why did she try to commit suicide? *Did* she try to commit suicide? Is it because her lover no longer loves her? Is her primary motivation love, or shame, or something else? A series of flashbacks provide us with clues, but of course no answers. Davies is not only a master at relating music and image—his opening overture is perhaps the best opening to a film I've ever seen. He is also wonderfully alive to the deep indeterminacy of human motive, a theme which he left relatively unexplored in his early autobiographical memory pieces, but which seems increasingly to be the red thread uniting his later adaptations. Of course, we are not simply a mystery to ourselves. But aspects of our mental lives will remain forever dark to us. And, because we are inside Hester's consciousness throughout, we see that, although her behaviour is hardly inexplicable, aspects of her mental life will remain forever dark to her as well.
We *see*—centrally, we see how Hester feels; but we do not always feel how Hester feels. At the end of the film's brilliantly acted closing scene, she is heartbroken. We can see this; but what I felt is a kind of relief, at Hester's becoming freed from an impossible, stifling situation. I think this is deliberate. Barber's music is gushingly romantic, and it could easily be used, by a lesser director, to create cheap emotional effects. But this is not how Davies uses it. It is the music of her love affair with Freddie. And the film is not—in its "real time" sequences—about her love affair with Freddie. It's about the end of the affair. That is why we hear the music during the overture—which is about her affair—but hardly at all during the rest of the film. The romance in the music is a kind of lie. That is what Hester must come to terms with. The snatches of music we hear later are the final flickering of a dying ember, reminding Hester of what she (and we) must move beyond. Barber's romanticism gives way to something more prosaic, less elevated, and more world-weary: Eddie Fisher singing "Any Time".
This is a film of real riches. The shot composition alone makes it something to treasure. It's also a vast improvement on Rattigan's somewhat unfocused play, which Davies adapts, not as Rattigan himself did in the earlier film version, by trying to "open it out" (by including scenes of Freddie and Hester on a skiing holiday—rather as 1970s British sitcoms were "opened out" for their film versions by sending the cast away on holiday), but by homing in on its central relationships, and breaking it up in the way I have described. I am not sure it is a flawless film. Collyer's mother (Barbara Jefford) seems to be too much of a caricature to perform the function which Davies seems to intend for her—to represent one manifestation of the repressive social values which Hester is up against. But this remains a film of deep intelligence and real grace—qualities which its central performances also possess. And here special mention must be made of Rachel Weisz, who gives a really wonderful, sympathetic, and utterly authentic performance. Authenticity permeates the film as a whole. This is not a smirking, ironic vision of the 1950s, intended primarily to comfort us on how far we've come; it *is* the 1950s, as Davies remembers it, with all its starchiness and stiffness—and that is likely to be somewhat challenging and somewhat alienating for the modern viewer. But audiences who are prepared to meet that challenge will be richly rewarded by this lovely, unique, masterful film.