The Deep Blue Sea Review
London, “about 1950”. In a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) has tried to commit suicide by gassing herself. Married to Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), a magistrate, she has left him for Freddie, a RAF pilot. Hester remembers the passionate way their relationship began. Now can Freddie stay with her?
One of the most gratifying sights in the cinema this year is that of two of Britain's best directors making features after being prevented for some time. We Need to Talk About Kevin was Lynne Ramsay's first feature in nine years, and it's one of 2011's finest films. But Terence Davies last made a (fiction) feature in 2000 - The House of Mirth - and, amongst other vicissitudes, he had an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic 1932 Scottish novel Sunset Song (previously turned into a widely admired TV serial by the BBC in 1971) collapse at the financing stage. In 2008 he did make a documentary, his valentine to Liverpool, the city of his birth, Of Time and the City. Excellent though that is, I said in my review that it felt like a pendant to his work and that I looked forward to his next feature. And that is now here – his adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea.
In his centenary year, Rattigan has had a number of theatrical revivals, after a long period in which he was out of fashion, as the purveyor of well-made bourgeois plays swept away by the Angry Young Men and the kitchen-sink realism of the 50s and 60s. In the cinema, he has been a reliable source for adaptation. The Deep Blue Sea was previously filmed in 1955, a little-regarded version (which I haven't seen) starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More. More recently, such directors as David Mamet and Mike Figgis have produced solid versions of, respectively, The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version.
Rattigan was a gay man, like Noel Coward part of the establishment while being closeted at a time when male homosexuality was illegal. In a time when the Lord Chamberlain was the theatre's censor, he wasn't the first gay playwright to use a female protagonist to explore themes he couldn't tackle more directly, to let an illicit sexual liaison stand in for an illegal one. There are plenty of arguments that Tennessee Williams did the same with some of his heroines. And indeed Coward: look no further than Brief Encounter, based on his play Still Life. Of course Davies is a gay man as well, and it's clear from his autobiographical films that women have been a strong presence in his life, so it's simplistic to suggest that Hester, at least here, is little more than a gay man in drag. (And to complicate matters further, this is Davies's second feature in a row with a female protagonist, though The House of Mirth originated in a novel by a woman, Edith Wharton.)
Having said all that, I was reminded of another film set around the same time by a writer/director who was very young at the time, and about darker things lurking behind societal respectability, namely Mike Leigh's Vera Drake. Normally those two directors seem worlds apart, but they find common ground here. They even share the same beige-brown-umber colour scheme that carries on from the bleach-bypass work Davies and his cinematographers used in Distant Voices Still Lives. (It's a sign of the times that the end credits feel the need proudly to announce that The Deep Blue Sea was shot on 35mm film. The DP was Florian Hoffmeister.) For all its origins in Rattigan, this is very much a Davies film, with a characteristic use of flashbacks and the use of the pub – and singalongs there – as a means of cementing together a community. This leads up to a masterly flashback scene in a Tube tunnel during the Blitz, executed in one long tracking shot. While Davies is clearly trying to make a visual film out of a wordy play, he can still use dialogue to great effect, notably in a very edgy scene where Hester has dinner with her husband and her mother-in-law (played by Barbara Jefford).
A former actor himself, Davies elicits fine performances from his cast. Rachel Weisz has the biggest part but Simon Russell Beale captures perfectly the pain and forbearance of the cuckolded husband, while Tom Hiddleston conveys the flightiness, arrogance and occasional childishness of a man who is attractive to women – even without trading on his war heroics – and who knows it.
In previous reviews of Davies's work for this site, I have said that it has been shameful that one of our finest living directors could have been prevented from working for so long. He's sixty-six now, so not getting any younger. Let's hope that Sunset Song can be made as soon as possible.