CAMBRIDGE - There’s a scene in Terence Davies’s latest film, “The Deep Blue Sea,’’ where Rachel Weisz enters an Underground station. With the effortlessness of memory, the London of 1952 shifts to the London of the Blitz. It’s a classic Davies moment. The past for him isn’t another country. It’s another form of present: as vivid, as vital, as immediate. Perhaps no filmmaker has so richly rendered the past on screen or given it such emotional weight. Not for nothing has the Harvard Film Archive called its current retrospective Sing, Memory: The Postwar England of Terence Davies.
The retrospective ends Monday, and “The Deep Blue Sea’’ opens Friday. Davies, 66, was here 10 days ago to introduce an advance screening at the HFA.
“I don’t know why I’m fascinated by the nature of time,’’ Davies said before speaking to the audience at Harvard’s Carpenter Center, “but it never, never ceases to thrill me. We can be in a room - someone can smell something - you remember a gesture’’ - Davies gently waved a hand - “and it’s 40 years ago.’’
Davies has a memorable speaking voice - mostly purr, partly rumble. He narrates the one documentary he’s made, “Of Time and the City’’ (2008), about his native city, Liverpool. No viewer likely forgets the richness of his burgundy-hued tones.
All of the films have been set in the past: the autobiographical ones about growing up in Liverpool, “The Terence Davies Trilogy’’ (1983), “Distant Voices, Still Lives’’ (1988), and his masterpiece, “The Long Day Closes’’ (1992); “The Neon Bible’’ (1995), based on John Kennedy Toole’s novel; “The House of Mirth’’ (2000), based on Edith Wharton’s novel; and now “The Deep Blue Sea,’’ based on Terence Rattigan’s play.
“I did write a present-day comedy once, but I couldn’t get any money for it,’’ Davies said. “But all those stories - not just the autobiographical ones - I responded to the story. Either it was a novel or a play that just happened to be set in 1940s America or the Belle Epoque or 1952 in London.’’
While looking back to such classic women’s pictures as “Brief Encounter’’ and “Letter to an Unknown Woman,’’ “The Deep Blue Sea’’ brings to bear a contemporary sensibility that’s less illusioned and more searching. Hester (Weisz) has left her husband (Simon Russell Beale), a wealthy judge, for a former RAF fighter pilot (Tom Hiddleston) at loose ends. Her lover excites Hester as her husband can’t, but that excitement comes at considerable cost - and with real peril.
Hester presents “a fascinating portrait of a woman unraveling,’’ Weisz said by telephone last week. “I loved her lack of pride and loss of nobility, even though she’s a very strong person.’’
Weisz said the opportunity to play Hester was one of two things that most attracted her to the part. The other was the opportunity to work with Davies. “His involvement was hugely important,’’ she said. “In England he’s a kind of cult. It was very exciting to have the chance to work with him. I don’t know anyone like him. Maybe film scholars could name some comparable director, but I can’t.’’
Weisz and Davies form a mutual admiration society. “She’s a complete joy to work with,’’ he said. Their collaboration almost didn’t happen, though.
“I don’t watch much television,’’ Davies recalled. “This film was on. I’d missed the beginning, so I didn’t know what it was called. This girl comes on with these luminous eyes, this luminous face, a luminosity she’ll have when she’s 90. I waited until the end, and it’s Rachel Weisz. So I rang my manager, ‘Have you heard of someone named Rachel Weisz?’ He said, ‘Terence, you’re the only one who hasn’t!’ ’’
Davies grew up the youngest of 10 in a working-class family. He left school at 15, working as a shipping clerk and accountant for 10 years, then went to drama school. A script he wrote received funding from the British Film Institute. That short, “Children,’’ would become the first part of the trilogy.
Last year was Rattigan’s centenary, and his estate asked Davies to choose one of the plays to adapt. What drew him to “Deep Blue Sea’’ wasn’t so much the story, or even the characters, he said, as what lay beneath. “At one point I was a bit worried about its real meaning. The story itself is actually rather unremarkable. As soon as I knew what the subtext was, which is about love, about each person wanting the kind of love from the other that they can’t reciprocate, then it’s much more interesting, and then it’s truly tragedy. Because at the very end she achieves something very few people do. She achieves true love. She lets [her lover] go, which I think, in its own way, is rather heroic.’’
Hester’s heroism, as well as her passion and yearning, find added expression in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. It almost deserves its own acting credit. Music has a special place in Davies’s films. “At the age of 7, I was taken to my first film, ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ ’’ he said. “How could you not fall in love with music?’’
‘We can be in a room - someone can smell something - you remember a gesture - and it’s 40 years ago.’
Davies thinks about a film’s musical score even as he’s developing the screenplay. “When I write I write every shot in the script - whether it’s panning, tracking, left to right, right to left, all that stuff - but also it includes the music, always. The first thing I say to the financiers is, ‘You’ve got to clear the music rights.’ If for any reason we can’t, then I’ve got time to choose another piece.’’
Financial considerations are never far from Davies’s mind. The former accountant in him takes some pride in detailing the production history of “The Deep Blue Sea.’’ “From the moment I was commissioned to the final print was just over a year. We shot it in 25 days. It was 2.5 million pounds. . . . I’ve always done films for what we could afford to raise, and I’ve always come in on time and on budget because I think you’ve got a moral responsibility to do that because it’s other people’s money, not yours.’’
Financial considerations can’t be far from Davies’s mind. If backing were easier to come by, he’d presumably have had more than seven feature releases in three decades. More than a decade separates the making of “House of Mirth,’’ as fine a screen adaptation of a classic novel as there’s been, and “The Deep Blue Sea.’’ Asked how there could have been such a hiatus, Davies shrugged.
“The problem with British film is that we don’t have an industry anymore. It’s a cottage industry. It constantly looks to America for validation. And it is beset by every single new orthodoxy. When I first started it was ‘semiology.’ What a waste of time that was! Now it’s ‘genre.’ ‘What genre is it in?’ You say, ‘No, it’s not in a genre. It’s a story. Unfortunately, in Britain it’s easier to say no than yes.’’
Asked the hiatus question, a vexed Weisz sighed. “I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s a shame. Let’s hope it’s quicker next time.’’Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.