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Editorial:  A Reflection on Forty Years



By Elsie Walker


Volume 40, Number 4


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First there is a blotch of blue smeared at the center of a black screen and the sound of a clock ticking. And then we hear Hester Collyer’s trembling though determined voice—

My darling Freddie, a moment ago I knew exactly what I wanted to say to you. I have run through the letter in my mind so very often and I wanted to compose something eloquent but the words just don’t seem to be there. I think that’s because this time I really do want to die.

This is Terence Davies’s 2011 adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Rattigan’s celebrated play of 1952. Rachel Weisz plays the lead role of Hester, a woman whose passion is never fully answered by the one who is “the whole of life” to her (Rattigan 54).[i] Within a minute of Davies’s film, along with Hester’s emphasis on her own time running out, the ticking is more noticeable and the blue that represents her inescapable grief has filled the screen.

   Though the film title is presented as “Terence Rattigan’s,” this is Davies’s opening: where the play begins with Hester having attempted suicide, the film catches her in the excruciating moments beforehand; where the play begins with the panicked sounds of Hester’s landlady and neighboring tenants alerted to the smell of gas, the film begins with Hester’s carefully paced preparations for death; and where the play begins with the quick-paced rhythm of an emergency effort, the film begins with an achingly measured focus on Hester’s resigned words.

   Directly after the opening credit sequence of Davies’s adaptation, we hear the Second Movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (Op.14), a piece that recurs throughout the film and that compassionately represents Hester’s agony. The first shot after the opening credits is a grainy image of a dimly lit, run-down street of London where Hester lives “around 1950.” The half-light evokes tonalist painting more than an actual location. The film is the idea of a place and time: the period details are obviously informed by historical accounts but, right from the beginning, this is a film that owes more to other artistic representations. The immediate emphasis on Hester’s voiceover as well the blue that takes over the opening credit sequence (and which suffuses much of the film thereafter) evokes another landmark period “woman’s film,” Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). The subdued palette of the grainy mise-en-scène sets up an immediate contrast with those most celebrated and vibrant films focused on women and directed by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s. (All That Heaven Allows [1955] is specifically mentioned by Sean O’Connor, the film’s producer, as an influence in his introduction to the recent tie-in edition of Rattigan’s play [v].) The recurrent use of Barber’s music sets up a strong connection between Davies’s adaptation and the use of Rachmaninov in another revered British film of lovers parting, Brief Encounter (1945). The film’s tactile and painterly emphasis on color, place, time, and the presence of a woman who beautifully, achingly bows to that which oppresses her immediately resonates with Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), another period drama featuring the recurrence of a musical composition (Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme”) that, like Barber’s music, serves as a “statement” of that which exceeds verbal expression. The painterly compositions of Davies’s adaptation also echo his feature film adaptation that precedes The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth (2000): both films represent aesthetic surprises when compared with the more immediately hard visual lines in some of his other films, like Children (1976) for example.[ii] And the granular images of The Deep Blue Sea give them a nostalgic and strangely softened aspect in relation to much of Davies’s other work, though the overall film also reflects the director’s consistent attention to emotional confrontationality, memorial depth, and social resonance.

   In this fortieth year of publishing Literature/Film Quarterly I look to examples like Davies’s most recent film to explore the purposes of adaptation studies. I consider how it is that understanding the film as an adaptation in the broadest intertextual sense enlivens it for me. The references I have already mentioned are fairly obvious but calling them to mind changes the film experience: so much so that, for me, the grainy images of The Deep Blue Sea seem to take on sharper contours. Some of the other references that occurred to me while watching the film are oblique: for instance, not every viewer will connect the bright orange-red coat that Weisz wears in some otherwise dingy scenes with Davies’s well-known adoration of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956).[iii] But with such a connection in mind, we might understand Hester’s coat as the painfully ironic inverse of a little boy’s humanity being answered in the form of that brightest-of-objects in the drabbest streets of post-war Paris. Hester will not ever be lifted up like the little boy of Lamorisse’s fantasy, but Davies’s camera begins high up in the final sequence of the film when it finds her opening the curtains on a new day. Davies’s tentative optimism is soon off-set by the image of Hester’s still war-torn street in the bright morning light, but his clear focus on her allowing in light suggests the possibility of recovery, especially if we have the precursor of Lamorisse’s film in mind.

   There are numerous other sources that might be mentioned in relation to Davies’s film: not only his other productions, but also the other work of Rattigan, other examples of classic and contemporary British cinema, and other representations of London in the 1950s. We might also consider the filmography of Rachel Weisz: compare her performance of Hester’s vulnerability with her power as the subject of great love in The Fountain (2006) or as the unapologetically manipulative lover in The Shape of Things (2003). We could also look again at our most direct source—Rattigan’s original play—from which much of Davies’s screenplay is directly taken. Finding the shared text between play and film ironically amplifies the differences between them. Along with manipulating Rattigan’s story with numerous flashbacks, the film zeroes in on Hester and on honoring her agony much more consistently.[iv] The opening voiceover, for instance, originally comes from the suicide note that is read aloud by the object of Hester’s adoration, Freddie—in the play, he not only betrays her by reading it aloud to a friend but interrupts her words with some derisive asides as he reads it. Such crucial differences help us understand how much is intentionally at stake in Davies’s adaptation.

   Our primary aim at LFQ is to contribute to those works we study through finding such points of contrast and connection. Every essay of this issue is a representative attempt to reframe a given film, and to provide a new way into understanding why it matters as a nexus of adapted ideas.

   Åke Bergvall’s analysis of Metropolis is grounded in studying lost footage from the 1927 film that was discovered in 2008. As Bergvall shows, this reinstated footage has profound implications for interpreting the film, especially in terms of its Biblical resonance. Kristi Branham analyzes John Stahl’s 1934 adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Imitation of Life. (She notes the much greater attention that has been paid to Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film version.) Branham provides a new analysis of the maternal characters within both forms of the story because they are often sidelined in other critical analyses despite being important embodiments of the “woman question” as well as the “race question.” Carl C. Curtis, III, begins his essay by acknowledging the historical liberties taken by David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) while also stressing the film’s profound influence on perceptions of both Lawrence and the Arab revolt. In this context, Curtis mentions another great manipulator of historical truths: Shakespeare. Curtis then explores just what sort of man is at the heart of Lean’s film—for Curtis, this Lawrence must be symbolically read as a “man-God,” one who almost rises to the heights of a deity but who also stumbles over his own human limits, one who sees himself as “simultaneously nothing and everything.” Sean Desilets explores the mixed meanings of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée, a version of the Orpheus story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Desilets provides strong evidence of Cocteau resisting the corporeal emphases of Ovid’s text in favor of “an aesthetic of withdrawal from the world”—and yet, as Desilets also shows in his poetic new reading of The Princess, there is one character who ironically embodies the physical and artistic possibilities that are respectively reflected in Ovid’s text and Cocteau’s cinema. Finally, Eric M. Thau examines how Antonio Muñoz Molina’s second novel of 1987, El invierno en Lisboa (Winter in Lisbon), owes more to Classical American films noir than to those Spanish incarnations of the genre in vogue during the 1980s. In particular, Thau explores the cinematic tendencies of Muñoz Molina’s writing as it evokes the mise-en-scènes, camerawork, silences, and sounds of Classical American films noir.

   Just as considering the numerous precursors to Davies’s adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea helps us to perceive its different contours, these articles allow us to see new contours in several well-known films and texts. We at LFQ thank the authors of this issue, and of every other issue that has led to this, our fortieth, year.


   [i] Since the recent edition of Rattigan’s play does not include line numbers, I have simply provided the page reference. This quotation comes from a pinnacle point in Hester’s speech about what Freddie is to her, almost exactly halfway through the play, in the second of three acts.


   [ii] For some further discussion of The House of Mirth, see Linda Cahir’s illuminating interview with Davies and his producer Olivia Stewart (cited below).


   [iii] The Deep Blue Sea might even be read as an adult translation of Davies’s own reading of The Red Balloon: “The film shows that you can overcome disaster. What happens to the balloon is a disaster for the child—which is also what it feels like watching it. I think the film symbolizes the ecstasy and terror of childhood and of life, but the end also signifies hope” (Davies).


   [iv] In his review of The Deep Blue Sea for Cineaste (for an issue that spotlights the film with a cover image of Weisz as Hester), Jonathan Murray emphasizes Davies’s role as adaptor. He also usefully places Davies’s adaptation of Rattigan’s play within a context of his other adaptations of history and literature. Davies’s own somewhat unusual, final onscreen credit for having “adapted and directed” The Deep Blue Sea invites us to explore what it represents as a particularly self-conscious form of adaptation.


Works Cited


Cahir, Linda. “The House of Mirth: An Interview with Director Terence Davies and Producer Olivia Stewart.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29:3 (2001): 166-71. Print.


Davies, Terence. “Terence Davies on The Red Balloon.” The Telegraph. 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-blog/9202189/Terence-Davies-on- The-Red-Balloon.html>.


The Deep Blue Sea. Dir. and adapt. Terence Davies. Perf. Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Ann Mitchell, and Jolyon Coy. UK Film Council/Music Box Films, 2011. Film.


Murray, Jonathan. “The Deep Blue Sea.” Cineaste 37:3 (2012): 45-47. Print.


Rattigan, Terence. The Deep Blue Sea. London: Nick Hern, 2011. Print.

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