The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on April 17, 2012 on the website of The National Board of Review
The Deep Blue Sea, the new film by Terence Davies (Of Time and the City, House of Mirth), is an adaptation of the 1952 play by Terence Rattigan. It is the story of an obsessive and depressed woman named Hester (Rachel Weisz) who leaves her marriage with Sir William Collyer, a wealthy and respectable older man (Simon Russell Beale) for the arms of Freddie, (Tom Hiddleston), her younger lover, an erratic playboy without means to support her. The plot begins with a suicide attempt by Hester then plunges us into the despair and fear of a woman desperate for the love of a man incapable and unwilling to give her what she wants–love and sex.
There is an austere beauty to the world of 1950 England that Davies creates for the screen. His previous film, 2008’s Of Time and the City, was his first documentary and created a very personal vision of Liverpool, England, his home town. The world of The Deep Blue Sea is awash in muted colors and great design. The vintage middle class wardrobe of the young pub crawlers who Hester spends time with, the wealthy elegance of tuxedos and gowns which represent the society Collyer moves in, the opulent mansion and classic British luxury car, the dark contrasted with the monochrome sepia of the flat that Hester has “stepped down” to. The effect is to transport one to an England that feels nostalgic and somewhat hyper-realistic. Much of the film’s pleasure comes from the highly detailed set design and the high contrast and deep saturation of the image–often presented in a palette highlighting earthy browns and greens, especially in the flat where Hester attempts suicide. Equally effective are the the physical details, almost incomprehensible to a modern audience, specifically defining time and place. In the suicide sequence that opens the film, Hester struggles with coins, dropping them with large kerplunks into (we finally realize) a meter device that must be fed to provide the gas that heats the apartment. A relic of early 20th century design, the tiny spouts of the peculiar shaped ceramic-faced unit come to life as they belch invisible and deadly gas.
Unfortunately the visual strength of The Deep Blue Sea, inspired by a love for the England of previous generations, can not mask the film’s deep flaws. Davies has saddled himself with a dated and extremely cumbersome script. The dialogue, especially when Hester is with her husband and/or her mother-in-law, feels creaky and literal–a raised eyebrow away from parody. An example occurs when, only moments after Freddie has just stormed away from Hester, Collyer is at the door. They have a rambling conversation that finally concludes with Hester expressing her desire to experience lust (with Freddie), while Sir William Collyer chooses to forego desire. Though sounding vaguely feminist at this moment, Hester is a miserable failure because she wastes her life begging for the attentions of a man who does not love her. If there is a best line in the film it is delivered by a secondary character–an older man who is an informal doctor. When he is challenged by Collyer, the somewhat scruffy man becomes offended and says “I give my respect to those who’ve earned it–to every one else I’m civil.”
One great line does not a screenplay make, but Davies does an admirable job attempting to mask the shallowness and inertia of the film. He restructures the story and constructs a remarkable soundtrack of classical and popular period music. The opening sequence reveals Hester’s suicide attempt, weaves numerous memories/flashbacks into the ordeal. It seems complex, challenging the viewer to consider the relationship of each moment to the developing story. Classical violin (Samuel Barber’s evocative and emotional Opus for Violin and Orchestra) plays across nearly the entire sequence –for over twelve minutes–as Hester’s jumbled memories of Collyer and Freddie unspool. With little dialogue, the sequence takes place in pubs, in bed, and in various yet-to-be identified apartments. The use of sound is often dreamy, mysterious, and quite ominous, especially when Hester is transitioning from her interior world to the present. What at first seems inspired by the fragmentary vision of filmmakers like Alain Resnais (especially Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and David Lynch (specifically Mulholland Drive), sadly devolves into a predictable pattern of intercutting well before the mid-point of the film. With even more tragic results, Davies confuses the viewer by mixing cues as to whether Hester is having waking fantasies or simply experiencing a period of strangely elliptical edits within a melodramatic downturn in the story. Without giving away the answer I will say that the choice made in the adaptation process feels wrong (and perversely perplexing).
The filmmaker adds another stylistic touch by putting popular period music into the mouths of pub drinkers (where Hester and Freddie seem to have met) and wartime survivors gathered in a subway fallout shelter (a flashback to the early days of Hester’s relationship with Collyer). It is a fun technique, and may come from the theatrical source material, but also feels beside the fact. These outbursts of song are reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s 1980’s television work, such as The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven series, in which Potter made much more specific and coherent use of nostalgic music and singing.
There are good performances in the film. Rachel Weisz struggles admirably with a character who can only be described as sad and pathetic, wrestling to bring some dignity to the role. Simon Russell Beale, who plays Collyer, is also noteworthy, determined to remain civilized despite the faithlessness of his young wife. Tom Hiddleston does a good job with a difficult role–Freddie is an enigmatic and seemingly underdeveloped character.
The real star of The Deep Blue Sea is style–cinematography, set design and wardrobe. Terence Davies is an exceptional filmmaker who is ultimately betrayed by his fierce fidelity to the source material. The film remains stuck in a writing style that was pushed aside by the “angry young men” (John Osbourne, Kingsley Amis for instance), who came along a few years later, fulfilling the promise of method acting and kitchen-sink realism. The Deep Blue Sea is a story of underwhelming substance wrapped within a rich and carefully designed mise-en-scène.