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Writing the Body Politics

Hester’s Estrangement: Searching for a Language out of Post-War Britain: Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

À la recherche d’une langue hors de l’Angleterre de l’après-guerre : The Deep Blue Sea de Terence Davies (2011)
Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio


Cet article pose comme hypothèse que dans son adaptation de la pièce de Terence Rattigan de 1952, The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies réimagine son film, quoique non exclusivement, à travers le prisme du woman’s picture des années quarante Brief Encounter (1945). Il déplace ainsi le récit d’une passion interdite car adultère et représentée dans un cadre d’époque, vers une focalisation cinématographique sur la position d’étrangère de Hester. Aussi lisons-nous l’écriture du film non seulement comme un détachement progressif à l’égard domestique, du mari comme de l’amant-héro, mais plus radicalement à l’égard de l’identité nationale et esthétique. Nous démontrons comment dans la figure de Hester, jouée par Rachel Weisz, le film creuse sa propre ouverture dans la texture après-guerre des années cinquante qui le compose, pour épouser la recherche d’un langage et d’une poétique qui pénètre et traverse à la fois la possibilité même d’une identité britannique. Cette lecture de la sémiotique filmique, se concentrant sur la musique, le non-dit, les glissements de la représentation et le souvenir-écran, déplace donc la question de la mémoire culturelle hors conscience ou frontière nationale pour la situer dans l’étrange surgissement des intertextes anachroniques et résurgents.

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1David Lean’s Brief Encounter, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Still Life (1936), was released in 1945 and filmed before the end of the Second World War on location at Carnforth Railway station Lancashire and in London. The film, the play, the director and the playwright are household names of post-war Britain. Terence Davies (1945) is the film author of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Long Day Closes (1992), Of Time and the City (2008) among others; all three films are set in working-class Liverpool in the late 40’s early 50’s of his childhood, the latter, a documentary, extending silently from black and white archival sequences into the colour of later decades, with Liszt’s Consolations running through the whole as a commentary setting the film in timelessness. In this respect we might see Davies as the cinematic author of Eliotian elegies to the 40s and 50s suspended in time, composed out of song and silent sequence with the thickness of texture lent by a child’s gaze. Furthermore, it is this lyrical tension between immemorial and documentary qualities, and its inflection on questions of cultural and unconscious memory—as a form of intertextuality, which is the focus of my interest in Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea (2011) insofar as this deconstructs the very possibility of representing Britain.

  • 1 There have been at least nine major stage productions of Rattigan in Britain since 2010 and indeed (...)
  • 2  In an interview with the cinema magazine Positif Davies upholds this observation: ‘J’ai décidé de  (...)

2In 2009 Davies undertook the film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea, set in North West London ‘around 1950.. This reflects a return to Rattigan in present-day Britain,1 but if I began with Brief Encounter it is because the Rattigan revival seems to me to be a secondary, indirect feature of Terence Davies’s film. Davies’s recall of the making-of contains a telling memory flashback in this respect, since he purports to have found a lead actress possessing the luminosity of Celia Johnson—who plays Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter—and would still have it aged 90, the age Celia Johnson would have had, had she returned to life to play the later role. In a sense Davies is freeing himself from Rattigan’s script by reimagining his film through the 1940’s woman’s picture—of which Brief Encounter is an emblematic example—and adopting an aesthetic characteristic of his previous work, the focus on women in extremis as the very fabric and nerve of his quest to retell English post-war life as it was and furthermore to find his own artistic language.2

  • 3 For further Reading on this question see Smith-Di Biasio 2011, 103–117.
  • 4 ‘It is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some ac (...)
  • 5 For the question of woman’s immanence and rhizomatic femininity in relation to cinema see Vegari.

3Thus whilst remaining faithful to period setting in the wake of Brief Encounter, now London around 1950, and recalling the railway station of the previous film in a scene set in Aldwych tube station as it emerges from the blitz through image flashback, Davies shifts a tale of forbidden adulterous passion related by the woman herself in voice-over (in Lean’s adaptation of Coward) to an intense cinematic focus on Hester, the lead woman of The Deep Blue Sea (whom we hear in voice-over only during the opening credits), and more precisely on Hester’s estrangement. I call this focus intensely cinematic since it is a quality of the moving image and the accompanying soundtrack, with dialogue as secondary. There is a concomitant slippage from script or screenplay, whereby we are led to read the film as a purely literary space thereby detached from immediate narrational reference and dramatic action as such, in the manner of a Greek tragedy whose structure it reproduces. This quality of a purely literary space is defined by Virginia Woolf in her essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ as a form of poetic estrangement from the referential, producing ‘only an image of reality, not the reality itself’ (42), a paradigm shift from realism whereby the literary is perceived, like the foreign, as beyond the immediate grasp of knowing and recognition. There is, indeed, something distinctly Woolfian in my theory of the process of estrangement as a poetics of reading here, as there is in my definition of a place of pure reading outside the confines of knowing exemplified by patriarchy, nationalism, realism and instituted forms of consciousness which Woolf defines throughout her essays.3 Hence my understanding of Woolf’s thinking provides a paradigm for reading how Davies’s film writes itself cinematographically out of its referential present into intertextuality and estrangement and musically into unspoken language or not knowing. For not only does this recall Woolf’s own writing on cinema’s possibility of making an unspoken, secret language visible to the eye or producing a strata of reality beyond everyday perception,4 but underlines furthermore my own perception of this estranged, unspoken quality crystallised in the figure of Hester in Davies’s film.5

  • 6 For further reading on the literary trope of adultery see Segal.

4So I am reading Hester’s estrangement as an implicit form of detachment from patriarchy and home-truths, leading to an off-camera other place—a place out of Britain where she joins a transnational literary genealogy of women characters wresting themselves from the constraints of realism and domesticity, through the literary trope of adultery and beyond.6 The film, moreover, plays semiotically with the trope of traditional English coupling at a subliminal level as, for example, we see Hester encounter Freddie through the frame of a shop-door window engraved with the sign ‘Ede & Ravenscroft’—the queen’s tailors, who clothe her Lord Chief Justice husband. Then a sign for ‘Punch & Judy’—a popular puppet parody of married life is glimpsed beyond them in the same London street. This trope is repeated when we hear the names ‘Wagstaff & Quinn,’ ‘Hawkes & Guyler’—funeral directors, pronounced by Hester’s landlady handling the misdelivered post which will lead Hester to reveal her masquerade, estranged identity and adultery, as well as signifying her own wrestling with death on those very premises.

  • 7 For further reading on the poetics of ‘Outlanding’, see Smith-Di Biasio 2015.
  • 8 The experimental search for new forms of truth which this implies is encapsulated in Virginia Woolf (...)
  • 9 This argument was developed in my two earlier articles, cited in footnotes 1 and 3.
  • 10 As Browning continues, ‘And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware’ (329).

5In order to emphasise how both the notion of representation and of national identity are uncannily intertwined with and undone by estrangement, I shall read Davies’s film through the figure of Hester not merely on the diegetic level—through the narrative of adultery as a form of detachment from home, husband and heroes, but more radically and exegetically as a detachment from national identity or any idea of national aesthetic identity. Thus intending to problematise the notion of representation and of Britain, I take my cue from Virginia Woolf and more specifically my reading of Jacob’s Room through her essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ as a journey ‘Out of England’ (Woolf 1965, 133). For these three words extracted from the novel condense the paradox of being made out of one’s country and language and the always already foreign or originary strangeness of being ‘out of it.’7 We might remember here that if Jacob’s Room is a counter-novel of the Great War and Jacob a counter-hero, it is because both the novel and the character are written against the grain of heroism, nationalism and representation as such, that Modernism itself, and Woolf’s literary vision in particular, is inseparable from the combined impossibility both of representation and of national identity.8 It is part of my argument here that Britain, a sovereign state, can be seen as connoting national identity in a way that England, a country and literary topos lending itself to the aporia of representation, does not. A paradigmatic example, ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s there’ (Browning 329), is a decidedly counter-representational ‘Out of England’ line, composing England out of absence or exile. Thus might we see Davies recomposing post-war England out of Hester’s estrangement against the socio-historical backcloth of Britain losing an empire, just as in Jacob’s Room Woolf is recomposing England out of the shell-shocked fragments of Englishness, out of Jacob’s absence against the Britain of war slogans.9 I am thus insisting on England as a literary space composed against the post-war backcloth out of elements of not quite being there, a quality shared by both Jacob and Hester. As non-fixed, England is vaster than Britain which is representationally fixed. Anachronistic, displaced, it is a place that the poetics of Woolf or Davies has us awaken to, unaware,10 through that oneiric slippage from consciousness to the unconscious which undoes representation as such: ‘le signifiant en devenant inconscient, perd son statut de représentation’ says Laplanche (76). Furthermore, inscribed from the outset in Hester’s remembering through flashback as she lies down to die, and then as she lies down to recover from the suicide attempt, the film has an oneiric quality which absorbs the intermittent scenes interrupting Hester’s reminiscence. It is this slippage from narration or representation which interests me in Davies’s poetics—this composing Hester as a quintessentially literary heroine out of post-war Britain and her estrangement from national consciousness, extending the topography of identity beyond national boundaries in a manner reminiscent of Woolf, ‘Literature is no one’s private ground; it is common ground. It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there’ (Virginia Woolf 1938, 54).

6Thus this paper will read how in the figure of Hester the film opens out from within its very 50’s post-war texture to espouse the search for a cinematic language and poetics through and beyond domestic Britishness into a future composed of unspoken figuration.


7An adaptation from the stage and page, in the tradition of David Lean’s Criterion films, with Brief Encounter as its inspirational base, the film is yet decidedly Viscontian, both in visual detail—the framing, focus on faces, colour, texture and in the use of music as unspoken voice. Furthermore, we might read the choice of lead actors in this context of the shading out of Britishness into Englishness into foreignness. Hester, the adulterous heroine, the figure of an outcast whose name and predicament recall Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), whose detachment from her setting recalls Gretta in John Huston’s film of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’,11 while the shadow of suicide in the train station and many other motifs evoke Anna Karenina, is played by Rachel Weisz, an English actress of Jewish Austro-Hungarian origin. The focus on Rachel Weisz’ features, especially in profile, marks out her foreignness, from both the figure of her English-establishment husband Lord Collyer played by the Shakespearean actor Simon Russell-Beale and her lover hero of the Battle of Britain—state of the art English actor, Tom Hiddleston, whilst her luminosity and femininity inscribe her in that space of otherness which Davies’s gaze had already detected in Celia Johnson playing Laura Jesson. Furthermore, both Laura and Hester share a double displacement—that is an estrangement from both the setting of their marriage and of their adultery: ‘I met a strange man,’ says Laura, who refers to herself as ‘a stranger in the house,’ her own house.12 I shall return to the question of our reading a community of estrangement between Hester and female protagonists outside the film.

  • 13 For an elaboration of reading the ‘unrepressed unconscious’ inter-medially see Smith-Di Biasio and (...)
  • 14 See Valens, 17-18.
  • 15 See Freud, ‘dans le rêve la représentation retourne à l'image sensorielle d'où elle est sortie un j (...)
  • 16 In a recent publication, also reading film through text-image-music, I have called this intertextua (...)
  • 17 Barber, the composer, was himself a Battle of Britain pilot. He composed the first two movements of (...)

8To turn to the question of consciousness of the age in relation to unconscious memory, it is paradoxically in the focus on period detail that Davies attains a Viscontian thickness of texture and sense of framing which captivates the gaze, whereby each screen shot might be a painting, meaning that we no longer read the image as representational but as a screen memory. Freud referred to screen memories as mnemic residues, covering analogous memories which are not immediately available to consciousness. I shall return to these analogous memories, akin to the ‘unrepressed unconscious’ or the ‘unthought known’13 as a quality of the film and of our gaze, since I want to argue that, in true Viscontian fashion, period detail operates as a sequence of screen memories, engendering in turn a topographical (both spatial and temporal) regression at the level of gaze. Jean-Christophe Ferrari for instance observes : ‘Chez Davies (comme chez Renoir ou Visconti) la justesse des notations réalistes sont là, paradoxalement, pour se débarrasser du réalisme’ : he suggests that Davies’s film breaks with linearity to return us to a ‘une sorte de temps pur ou de temps rêvé, comme on voudra. Un temps musical, en tout cas. Une abstraction lyrique’ (18).14 In terms of my argument, just as in the dream-work topographical regression carries us out of consciousness into the ever-present tense of the image,15 so here we slip from representational fixation, such as period detail or consciousness of the age to imagining through other cinematic and literary texts and are led to read intertextually, reaching that unspoken point at which the film extends into a transnational literary genealogy, of foreignness and femininity.16 Hence, just as the strange grammar of the image—here filmed in 35mm—slips from the period detail setting to catch this ever-presentness, so is the interplay of wartime jingles, playground songs, popular ballads and BBC signature tunes heard as if a broken language through the poignant soundtrack which voices Hester’s unspoken thoughts: Samuel Barber’s concerto for violin opus 14. Since, as I will try to show with reference to the film’s opening, it is as if the music of the concerto were pointing to this off-screen other place where Hester joins not only a sequence of literary, cinematic and lyrical female protagonists at the life/death interface of her silence and attempted suicide, but through this same music, the unspeakable Real of The Battle of Britain and its post-war ‘lost boys’ such as Freddie.17

The Unspoken Dialogue of Image and Sound:

9We shall read how music encounters visual semiotics at the vortex of the unspoken Real, pointing to an off-camera other place signified by Hester’s estrangement. Didier Fiori thus notes about the film’s opening:

Sur un concerto poignant de Samuel Barber, le film nous plonge dans les pensées d’une femme en train de se suicider à travers ses souvenirs. On assiste alors à un équivalent convaincant de la technique littéraire du ‘flux de conscience,’ à l’union fascinante de Virginia Woolf et Luchino Visconti. Alors que la caméra virevolte autour d’un couple entrelacé après l’amour dans le passé pour revenir au corps allongé de la femme désespérée au présent, le film atteint une intensité émotionnelle et formelle . . .(Fiori)

  • 18 ‘Le plan circualire pour la scène d’amour . . . confère une dimension universelle et intemporelle, (...)
  • 19 See Pierre Fédida’s distinction between conscious and oneiric representation: ‘Le rêve est fait d’i (...)

10There is indeed a remarkable abstraction of forms in this opening super-imposition of moments and images, a formalist feature of the film underlined by Ferrari (17). Furthermore, we might read this opening scene against a later flashback focusing on Hester talking an angrily reluctant Freddie through the Cubists at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where he storms off-camera to take refuge with the Impressionists. This might seem a banal comparison with the intensity of the opening images were it not an agonistic moment recalling Freddie’s incapacity to read beyond the surface—of suicide notes or pictures—and filmed against silent Spanish Renaissance portraits whose dark deep colours we associate with Hester. Also, through the circular filming of clasped and unclasped limbs in the love-making scene panning into a rotating image of Hester’s reclining body, colours and contours are mapped onto and indeed return us to the previous image of her lying down to die in the deep green dressing gown. This collapsing of time levels and narrative sequence is indicative of Davies’s poetic layering18 as it is indicative of dream and is already apparent when the gestures composing the act of suicide are almost literally dissolved into the music’s unspoken voice.19 This music, like the paintings we see in the scene referred to above, is the signifier of Hester’s searching for a language outside those currently available to her. Its intertextual precedent is Serge Rachmaninov’s piano concerto n° 2, which marked Rachmaninov’s return to music in 1900 after severe depression and provides the sound track to Brief Encounter, released as Britain returns to life after the war. Set against this intertextual memory, Hester’s extreme politeness is a form of presence recalling Laura Jesson and inscribing her in the Englishness of her class whilst it also frames her silences and otherness. In the same way, her ironic or unknowing echoing of both Freddie’s clichés and her Lord Chief Justice husband’s search for the ‘sober truth’ operate as a form of reiterative questioning whereby she crystallises the poetics of estrangement I am tracing in Davies’s film. Davies, in modernist mode, has pared down all the characters to their language and erased their stories (more evident in Rattigan’s text): Freddie Page, a Battle of Britain pilot for whom life stopped in 1940, is a cascade of slang, cliché and RAF jargon from his first appearance, ‘Dear old blighty,’ ‘Old Fruit,’ ‘Old Darling’ to his innocent return to the site of Hester’s despair heralded by: ‘How’s tricks Hess?’, until the ultimate parting ‘never too late to begin again, that’s what they say,’ ‘be safe’. Her judge-husband, whose diction, age and appearance recall her father—indeed the two are filmed in close sequence, resembling Theban elders before the solitary Antigone—will ask unflinching factual questions of the suicide attempt and adultery, referred to in no uncertain terms as ‘infatuation,’ ‘sordid little ‘affair,’ ‘physicality,’ ‘lust.’ This is sufficient to inscribe Hester in a female genealogy of the absolute: ‘Freddie is, to me, the whole of life and death; put a label on that if you can,’ whilst she denies any tragic affiliation with Antigone, ‘hardly Sophocles.’ Is Hester playing at Greek tragedy? As in a moment of explanation with her husband, she cites the Shakespeare of the Sonnets he offered to her for the birthday Freddie forgot, ‘Love comforteth like sunshine after rain/But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun’ (217). Is Davies playing out a missed tragedy as he has Hester sleepwalk back to the suicide letter tucked beneath the clock, hide it in her (man’s) dressing gown pocket, to be found too late, too early by her lover hero-counter-hero, ‘I’m not carrying the can for this,’ ‘No dice,’ ‘I can’t be a ruddy Romeo all the time!’? Nor can Lord William Collyer, despite the sonnets, play Romeo for long. Indeed, both Freddie and he share in British gamesmanship, a blurring of class distinction and oblivious neglect of wives or mistresses, as we hear them talk of Sunningdale where Hester stumbled upon Freddie one day as Collyer played out his handicap and where Freddie retreats the weekend of her birthday. ‘I’m a golf widow’ confesses Hester, who is not passionate about sport, to Mrs Elton her landlady confidante, the film’s Messenger, go-between and domestic goddess; a woman of the people who speaks home-truths, as she distributes the post and the ration books, observing identities, opening and closing the front door between inside and outside worlds.

11Indeed, the echoes of everyday working-class life operate in the film as a basso continuo underpinning the higher tragic stakes of Hester’s estrangement from this milieu—and indeed from her husband’s. She seems strangely remote from the singing in the pub with Freddie and his friends, as she seems absent from the settings of her marriage from which she stares out in silent tears like a painted figure, in a manner reminiscent of Angelica Huston playing Gretta in Huston’s film of Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ Hester’s absence/presence is crystallised in the music of Barber’s concerto, just as Joyce inscribes Gretta’s real presence in the ‘distant music’ of ‘The Lass of Aughrim.’ Furthermore, in The Deep Blue Sea the diachronic, documentary sounds of everyday life are crystallised into synchrony by Davies’s sound-layering. Thus as the film opens to the second movement andante sostenuto of the concerto, beneath the music we hear the chink of bottles then, as the door closes, BBC radio announcing a news item on India and an evening broadcast. A flashback morning scene can be read against this as Hester remembers returning home with Freddie early one morning; we hear very faintly in the background a traditional playground song, ‘The Deep Blue Sea,’20 and the front door opens on ‘Mrs E’ distributing the day’s first post. In a later flashback Hester returns home and as the door opens we hear the radio playing the signature tune to BBC’s Desert Island Discs21 while Mrs Elton distributes the afternoon post; as at the close of the film the radio plays out that oh so familiar-foreign language of the BBC shipping forecast beneath the concerto while Mrs Elton brings in the milk.22 Reading these three moments together led me to a fundamental interplay between domesticity and the offshore waters of the title—to read ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ as that off-screen other place of estrangement inhabited by Hester23 and present in both the immemorial sounds of ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ announcing Desert Island discs and the hypnotic words of the shipping forecast : ‘Viking, Cromity, Fitzroy, Dogger,’ which, heard beneath the concerto, are dislodged from linearity, as the music’s unspoken synchronicity pulls us away from any vertical surface diachrony to the present expression of Hester’s internal exile.

Topographical Regression

  • 24 It is these veiled ‘unthought known’ memories which operate at the level of the ‘unrepressed uncons (...)
  • 25 For a reading of these moments in relation to figurations of the feminine see Smith Di-Biasio 2009. (...)
  • 26 See Pierre Fédida, ‘la visualité de l’image est une catégorie ana-chronique de la temporalité de l’ (...)
  • 27 For further reading on imaginary identification through gaze, see Rose.

12I have listened to sound semiotics to see how we might read the film’s searching for a language out of the texture of post-war British life and have detected a slippage crystallised by Hester’s otherness and her uncanny echoing of Collyer’s and Freddie’s words whereby we might hear dialogue through the strange familiarity of the shipping forecast—a household institution of British domestic life listened to like a foreign language and pointing strangely to the dangers of offshore living. This slippage is indeed borne out on the level of visual semiotics, since we read the film through Hester’s silent gazing out of the film, the paradigm of her estrangement, as our own gaze is spellbound at once by the camera’s reading of her face and the intensity of colour composing her persona, as it is by the languorous painterly thickness of post-war period detail. I referred earlier to how such images, which I am calling screen memories after Freud, operate as a veil for the ‘unthought known’24 of memories not immediately available to consciousness and which are reached through topographical regression or that returning to the ever-presentness of image which characterises both the dream and certain anachronistic or meta-historical moments in texts.25 I would suggest that the implicit intertextuality running beneath the screen memory as a current of estrangement can only be read at this level, and furthermore that film invites this mode of reading-as-topographical-regression, since it is not a question of remaining with the surface images composing 50s Britain, but slipping away from them anachronistically out of the film.26 In this way, for example, the camera has us transfixed by the deep red of Hester’s coat against the 50s sepia as the close-ups of her face, her darkness and veil of hair foreground an intrinsic foreignness against her paler English entourage. Both the intensity of colour which clings to Hester against the dimly lit 50s interiors and exterior scenes and the exotic edge of her features, especially in the scene in which she visits her pale–featured English father to whom it is impossible to imagine she might be related, break the surface continuum, detaching her from any possible representation of national identity and taking her forever outside context. These surface breaks in reading led me to imagine she might be Esther, born Hadassah, that biblical icon of veiled Jewishness married in exile to a foreign king and immortalised by many a painter. I am not suggesting this depiction is intended by Davies, rather that it occurs precisely in the break, at that intertextual intersection of screen memory where our gaze meets the film.27 So watching Hester alone in the dark in her deep red coat, we remember Anna Karenina wearing a red gown to Princess Betsy’s ball. Then as the lights of the oncoming train cross Hester’s face in the station scene we read back through Laura’s face on the station platform in Brief Encounter, but also through Tolstoy’s literary heroine and her cinematic players, especially Gretta Garbo (1935), and Vivian Leigh (1948). Furthermore this shot is set against the reminiscent background of images of British wartime survival: the station as a shelter from the blitz, to the echoes of Molly Malone, a popular Irish ballad and elegy which sings of a 17th century Dublin street-hawker, some say prostitute, and seems strangely anachronistic here. So Molly, a tragic heroine, passes like the shadow of Anna Karenina over Hester, who walking alone in the street in the dark, enters a phone box in her red coat to try to reach Freddie. The dial turns, slowly recalling the dial of the gas meter in the suicide attempt, and our intertextual memory recalls Cocteau’s La Voix humaine (1928) which Rossellini brought to the screen with Anna Magnani in 1948 and Poulenc set to music in 1958, but more especially are we reminded of ‘Elle,’ the anonymous heroine whom we hear throughout the play speaking on the telephone to her estranged lover, and who like Hester, admits to taking twelve sleeping pills in a suicide attempt from which she, like Hester, is saved by a doctor-figure and attendant woman.

  • 28 There is a theoretical analogy here between my conceptualisation of nodal intertextual space as a ‘ (...)

13The spectator-reader is left uncertain of what happens to ‘Elle’ at the end of Cocteau’s play, just as Davies will close The Deep Blue Sea with Hester opening the curtains at the window where it began with the shadow of her unknowing, having displaced questions of memory and identity beyond English consciousness of the age and outside national boundaries onto stranger remembered intertexts. Thus reading the film as producing a topography of estrangement outside the confines of national forms of knowing, in a poetics defined by Virginia Woolf, I have tried to show how through the figure of Hester—both her silent gazing out of the film and reiterative questioning—our listening is strangely deflected from dialogue to the unspoken voice of Barber’s concerto as it filters domestic sound semiotics beyond documentary representation to lyrical figuration, just as our gaze is deflected from post-war period detail to a form of intertextual screen memory signifying a kinship of estrangement which Hester shares with a sequence of female protagonists outside the film.28

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Smith-Di Biasio, Anne-Marie, ‘“Weaving a veil through which nothing is seen in its actual shape”; au pays de l’étrangement poétique,’ Outlanding Woolf, Etudes britanniques contemporaines 48 (2015),, last accessed September 5, 2015.

———, ‘“Si brusquement tu cesses d’exister”: Neruda/Minghella ; moment du poème, vacillement du traduire, l’instance du trouvé-créé, dans Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Literatura: Teoría, historia, crítica 15.2 (2013) : 147–166.

———, ‘Survivances, Woolf’s Writing a Vision of Reading. Woolf as Reader / Woolf as Critic : The Art of Reading in the Present, ’ ed. Catherine Bernard, Montpellier: PU de la Méditerranée, 2011, 103–117.

———, ‘Le travail de remémoration et le hors-temps poétique: “The Dead” (1914) de Joyce, The Dead de John Huston (1987),’ Femmes/Mémoires, Résonances 3 (décembre 1997): 127–135.

———, ‘“Emerging phantom-like from some other reality”; Thinking back and the Apparition of the Feminine,’ Paragraph, Journal of Modern Critical Theory. Theory-Tinged Criticism: Essays in Honour of Malcolm Bowie, eds. Diana Knight et Judith Still (June 2009): 215–225.

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———, ‘On Not Knowing Greek,’ The Common Reader I (1925), London: Pelican, 1938, 32–45.

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———, ‘The Leaning Tower,’ The Moment and Other Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1948, 128–154.

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1 There have been at least nine major stage productions of Rattigan in Britain since 2010 and indeed the release of Davies’s film was set to coincide with the centenary of Rattigan’s birth in 2011.

2  In an interview with the cinema magazine Positif Davies upholds this observation: ‘J’ai décidé de . . . modifier le point de vue de la pièce, de tout présenter du point de vue de Hester’ (Valens 19).

3 For further Reading on this question see Smith-Di Biasio 2011, 103–117.

4 ‘It is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene . . . what the cinema might do if left to its own devices . . . Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently—of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed’ (Woolf 1967, 272).

5 For the question of woman’s immanence and rhizomatic femininity in relation to cinema see Vegari.

6 For further reading on the literary trope of adultery see Segal.

7 For further reading on the poetics of ‘Outlanding’, see Smith-Di Biasio 2015.

8 The experimental search for new forms of truth which this implies is encapsulated in Virginia Woolf’s emblematic sentence : ‘We must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments’ from her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (Woolf 1986-1992, 435).

9 This argument was developed in my two earlier articles, cited in footnotes 1 and 3.

10 As Browning continues, ‘And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware’ (329).

11 See Smith-Di Biasio 1997.

12 Brief Encounter, Radio Workshop Script Library, November 20th 1946,, last accessed 09/12/2014.

13 For an elaboration of reading the ‘unrepressed unconscious’ inter-medially see Smith-Di Biasio and Liberman.

14 See Valens, 17-18.

15 See Freud, ‘dans le rêve la représentation retourne à l'image sensorielle d'où elle est sortie un jour’ (Freud 1967, 461).

16 In a recent publication, also reading film through text-image-music, I have called this intertextual nodal point ‘the place of pure reading’ (Smith-Di Biasio 2013).

17 Barber, the composer, was himself a Battle of Britain pilot. He composed the first two movements of the concerto in 1939, and the finale after his WW2 service in the American Air Corps. The Battle of Britain was the German air force's attempt to gain air superiority over the RAF from July to September 1940.

18 ‘Le plan circualire pour la scène d’amour . . . confère une dimension universelle et intemporelle, y compris dans la position des corps’ (Valens 23).

19 See Pierre Fédida’s distinction between conscious and oneiric representation: ‘Le rêve est fait d’images dont la sensorialité visuelle est sonore; comme si le sonore était l’intensité sensorielle de l’image, de telle sorte que l’image soit pathétiquement vécue au présent’ (Fédida 1992, 28).

20 See, last accessed on December 9, 2014.

21 The BBC’s Desert Island Discs was first broadcast in January 1942. The signature tune, a waltz serenade called ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was composed by Eric Coates in 1930.

22 The BBC Shipping forecast has been broadcast by Radio 4 for over 90 years. In 1911 the Met. Office began issuing marine weather forecasts on the radio.

23 Significantly, in Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, The Arts Council 2000, the only quoted phrase from the novel pointing to Lily Bart’s estrangement as hors champ is ‘They caught a dazzle of deep blue sea’ (see O’Neill 2001, 40).

24 It is these veiled ‘unthought known’ memories which operate at the level of the ‘unrepressed unconscious.’ Both the ‘unthought known’ and the ‘unrepressed unconscious’ are recent important conceptualisations in contemporary psychoanalysis (see for example Mancia).

25 For a reading of these moments in relation to figurations of the feminine see Smith Di-Biasio 2009. For a Reading of the cinematography of women’s faces in relation to memory and melancholy, see Grasshoff.

26 See Pierre Fédida, ‘la visualité de l’image est une catégorie ana-chronique de la temporalité de l’image’, ‘Passé anachronique et présent réminiscent; Epos et puissance mémoriale du langage’ (Fédida 1985, 27). For further reading of screen memories in film see O’Neill 2000.

27 For further reading on imaginary identification through gaze, see Rose.

28 There is a theoretical analogy here between my conceptualisation of nodal intertextual space as a ‘pure place of reading’ outside narrative and national referentiality and Benjamin’s concept of ‘pure language’ as signifying an originary kinship produced between the foreignness of languages in translation: ‘Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express. . . . Translation . . . cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form . . . which no single language can attain by itself but which is realised only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other : pure language’ (Benjamin 72-4). This analogy is borne out by the Benjaminian theory of historicity being crystallised outside time in the fleeting moments of perception he attributes to constellations of the à-présent, which correspond to my own reading of Hester as embodying a topography of estrangement beyond period representation as such.

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Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio, « Hester’s Estrangement: Searching for a Language out of Post-War Britain: Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea (2011) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio

Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio (PhD, HDR) teaches Modernist literature and Translation Studies at the Catholic University of Paris. Her research explores the interface between Modernism and Modernity, Literature and Psychoanalysis, Writing and Translation, especially in the context of European Modernisms. At present she is working on a book: Le Palimpseste mémoriel (memory as palimpsest), based on the subject of her 2013 habilitation: “Writing the Immemorial, the Modernist text; Hearing, Translating and Interpreting Memory in Language.” Vice-president of the French Virginia Woolf Society since 2008, she is the author of Virginia Woolf, la hantise de l’écriture, editions Indigo & Côté-femmes 2010, and co-editor with Claire Davision-Pégon, of Contemporary Woolf/Woolf contemporaine, Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014 and of the journal issue Outlanding Woolf, forthcoming in Études britanniques contemporaines 48 (2015). The author of several recent articles on intertextual memory and film semiotics, she has collaborated in the forthcoming dictionary of psychoanalysis, Dictionnaire freudien, dir. Maurice Corcos (Albin Michel, 2015, forthcoming).

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