The Deep Blue Sea is a study of oppressive stillness
The Deep Blue Sea is a study of oppressive stillness

This week on the Bleader we’re running a series of posts on “Silence vs. Noise.” As a resident of Chicago, you’re probably intimately acquainted with the latter, though the former may seem like a quaint abstraction. Walk into any bar or restaurant and you’ll be assaulted with dance music or the blare of a sports channel or the bleating of someone’s unruly kid. Try to shush someone—even in a public library—and you’ll quickly discover that you’re the asshole, not the person making all the racket. Sometimes the only defense against your upstairs neighbors is to crank the stereo; the only resort to the bleed-over from someone’s headphones is to don your own. “Much has been written about the isolating effect of the iPod,” notes Brian Patrick Eha in the Atlantic post that inspired our series, “but little has been said of its other pernicious consequence, the way it makes self-inflicted sound a constant feature of our solitude. We are each of us cocooned in noise, and can escape from one another’s only when immersed in our own.”

I find this notion particularly intriguing because, for the past few days, I’ve been immersed in the new Terence Davies film The Deep Blue Sea, which opens Friday at Music Box. Davies adapted a classic 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, whose centenary is being celebrated in Britain this year, and though you might have trouble sorting out the film’s competing levels of authorship, one element attributable solely to Davies is the strategic use of music and quiet on the soundtrack. Most of the music comes from radios or people singing, and some of the weightiest scenes transpire in rooms so hushed you can hear the metronomic ticking of a mechanical clock. To watch The Deep Blue Sea is to be plunged into a past world completely foreign to our own, where a person really can be alone with his thoughts (for better or worse) and people have a much healthier relationship with music, using it to connect with each other rather than blot each other out.

This is nothing new for Davies: whether he’s made a drama like The Long Day Closes (1992) or a documentary like Of Time and the City (2008), its sparse music can be hugely dramatic, much more so than in contemporary Hollywood movies with their wall-to-wall pop tunes and oppressive orchestral cues. Born in Liverpool in 1945, Davies was raised on American musicals—his first moviegoing experience was Singin’ in the Rain—and in contrast to today’s media-saturated kids, he was deeply affected by music precisely because it was so scarce. “All we had was the radio and the cinema, the pub and the dance hall,” he told an interviewer in the 90s. “But that culture was very rich because you had to make your own entertainment, which was why, when you went to the pub, you sang, and then, when you came back to the house with some beer, you sang again, and then you listened to some records, and they were always American pop records.”

The Deep Blue Sea features only six pieces of music in 98 minutes, but Davies hauls out the big gun immediately: the aching second movement of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1939), which accompanies the first nine minutes of the movie. Such heavy artillery is quite in order because the sequence shows young Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz in a wrenching performance) swallowing a handful of pills, plugging a coin into the gas furnace of her dilapidated bedsit in London, and settling down on a blanket to die. As she drifts off, and Barber’s violin reaches piteously from the radio, Davies dives back into Hester’s memory to show her in a plush study with her stodgy but attentive middle-aged husband, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), and then in a pub as she shares a first kiss with her dashing lover, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). In a series of overhead shots, the camera spinning lazily, Hester and Freddie lie naked in bed, their limbs intertwined. But the dream, and the music, are cut short when a doctor slaps Hester in the face, bringing her back to consciousness.

The Barber concerto may be overwhelming in its grandeur, yet Davies understands that the emotional impact of music in a movie derives less from the piece itself than from how, when, and why it’s deployed. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the elaborate opening sequence, there’s a brief moment in which Hester stares out the window of her flat, miserably smoking a cigarette in her bathrobe, while children down below gaily sing a little tune identified in the end credits as “A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea”; the contrast between her mental state and theirs is devastating. Later in the movie, when Freddie has stumbled on a suicide note Hester intended for him and has stalked off in a rage, she finds him in the pub, and the moment when he recoils from her touch feels even more painful given the merriment of the patrons as they croon the old Eddie Fisher hit “Anytime” (“Anytime you feel downhearted / That’s the time your love for me is true”) and the World War I relic “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? After They’ve Seen Paree.”

Nothing dates the story like these scenes of communal singing, because that tradition has largely disappeared from our culture. When someone sings in a bar now, he’s usually standing in front of a karaoke machine, pretending he’s a pop star; group singing is reserved for church hymns, the national anthem, and the occasional butchering of “Happy Birthday to You.” Yet one of the most beautiful moments in The Deep Blue Sea comes when Hester, having descended into the tube station (apparently to hurl herself in front of a train), flashes back to an incident during the Blitz when she and William took shelter in the subway. As bombs explode at street level and parents cradle their frightened children in the lamplight, a growing chorus raises up the traditional Irish ballad “Molly Malone”: “She died of a faver / And no one could save her / And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone / Now her ghost wheels her barrow / Through streets broad and narrow / Crying, ‘Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!'”

What really intensifies the emotional force of the music is how judiciously Davies uses it. Some of the most crucial scenes are almost severe in their quiet: early in the film, as Hester and William dine with his crusty, disapproving mother, you can hear the wineglasses clinking and the snap of logs burning in the fireplace. And in scene after scene, painful pauses in conversation seem to amplify the incessant ticking of the clock in the room, a subtle reminder that time rolls onward and our brief lives are not to be frittered away. These scenes also demonstrate that the silence we may crave as modern-day city dwellers is seldom absolute, and more often a matter of degree than of kind. When we seek out silence, what we really want is to open up a little space within ourselves, in hope that the void will fill up with peace.