Given Terence Davies' plum proper English tones, you'd imagine that the 66-year-old filmmaker came from the salubrious British upper classes rather than working class Liverpool. Yet followers of his work know only too well the tough upbringing he endured. That he was gay—and if he was anything like the man before me today, overtly so—meant he was not only teased and bullied by his peers but also punished during his Catholic education. Now he is an atheist and he is not without his scars.
“It is a pernicious religion, really it is,” he says of Catholicism, or at least of the archaic version of the religion that existed as he was growing up. “The worst thing was when I was seven or eight to be told by teachers that you have this thing called a soul and that if you sin it gets dirtier and dirtier. I did love all women teachers in primary school, but going up to an all-boys secondary school was really awful. I was beaten up every day. And it was very strict. A lot of the teachers had been in the War and had retrained as teachers and thought that you make a man out of someone by terrifying them. That has done a lot of damage. A lot of damage.”
Through his experiences Davies has derived an enormous strength—a strength in his convictions and an honesty and passion that remains unabated. He makes few films as he insists on writing and directing them exactly how he wants. (His previous film had been the documentary Of Time and the City, about his Liverpool upbringing, while his previous feature had been 2000's House of Mirth.)
Now we are meeting at the Toronto Film Festival where Davies first dramatic feature in over a decade, The Deep Blue Sea, is world premiering. The heroine here, Hester Collyer, is a woman after Davies' own heart, as she defies society's norms and follows her passion.
Rachel Weisz, who had long wanted to work with Davies, had accepted the role of Hester immediately. It's one of those meaty parts actresses can sink their teeth into, though generally on stage. Based on Terrence Rattigan's 1952 play, the story is set in London in 1950 and depicts a woman so much in love that she gives up her marriage to a wealthy older High Court judge (Simon Russell Beale) to be with a young former World War Two fighter pilot Freddie Page (played by Tom Hiddleston—Loki in Thor and The Avengers) who is tormented by his memories of the World War Two. The fairly subdued action takes place in Hester's flat on the day she attempts suicide when we also see her previous life in flashbacks. There's no doubting that the story bears the melancholic quality of Davies' best known movies, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes.
“I think that [melancholia] reveals my true self, which is not so much that I'm a pessimist but I see the transience of life and the transience of things. Even when I was a child at the peak of joy, I knew it was passing and that makes any expression, particularly of joy, very hard to bear. I do see life as essentially tragic, which is why I think you have to have a sense of humour and you have to be passionate. But I do see the glass as half empty. I have always been in the position of thinking but will this go? Will it stay? And even when it does go, you are left with an ache wanting it back. My mother was the love of my life. Every day I tell her I love her and I miss her. I would give anything just to hear her voice once more, just to see her once more.”
The youngest of ten children, Davies grew up watching movies with his sisters and adoring the likes of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in strong women's pictures of the '40s and '50s. Hester in a way is a strong woman in that mould. Davies didn't know who Rachel Weisz was though now says she was perfect for the part.
“It is a good role for her because she is so classically beautiful and brave. She has the two things which is often unusual in some ways.”
The Deep Blue Sea had only ever been made into a less successful 1955 movie directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Vivien Leigh. The moody emotional drama had been deemed unfilmable.
“Litvak literally photographed the play and it was absurd," Davies explains. "Hester and Freddie were living in this huge apartment and it is supposed to be a bedsit in Ladbrook Grove, which after the war was crummy. There was some pretty awful acting, I have to say, so a true screen adaptation had never really been done. Two other Rattigan plays had been done wonderfully. In 1959 Burt Lancaster did Separate Tables and in 1952 Anthony Asquith with Michael Redgrave did The Browning Version and those two films are actually better than the plays. I wanted to make it a proper film, and not just a vaguely adapted screenplay of a play. It had to be cinematic.”
Many believe that openly gay Rattigan, who died at 66, was drawing on his own experience and that the play's hidden antisocial passion had a gay subtext.
“That is actually a myth,” Davies insists. “The first person to direct the play was a man called Frith Banbury who knew Rattigan very well. He said there was never ever a draft of the play where it was about two men. I don't think it is a covert play. I think it greatly influenced him in the fact that this young man killed himself out of love. For a while Rattigan was quite promiscuous apparently. Lucky old thing! That inevitably would play a part in the drama because Hester uses it initially both as a way of getting at Freddie and also trying to get away from life. Her attempt doesn't succeed but it must have come from the fact that Rattigan's lover did actually gas himself.”
World War Two is important as an off-screen influence, Davies says. “Britain was at peace but was completely bankrupt. Everyone thought that once the war was over it would go back to exactly the way it was before. And of course that couldn't happen and it didn't happen. Yet people tried to keep up appearances and especially in a moral way. It was felt that there were things that you didn't do and that you couldn't do. So for a married woman to find sexuality at 40 and say, 'I love this man and I would give up anything for him,' was very rare in those days, but incredibly courageous, because she knows what she is losing. But she decides to do that and at the end with the real love that emerges she is saying, 'If you are better off without me, then leave me and I will face the future alone'. That is very courageous and that is true love, when you do not want to possess the other person. T.S. Elliot once said, 'Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter'.”