Following an eight year absence, the work of director Terence Davies returned to the big screen in 2008, in the form of the documentary Of Time and the City – a deeply personal film about Liverpool, the director’s birthplace. A project linked to Liverpool’s then status as a European Capital of Culture, Of Time and the City was more refreshing and beautifully realised than a Lambanana. Davies had been away too long and while the documentary opened the door, the arrival of The Deep Blue Sea at the end of last year, and its recent release on DVD and Blu-Ray, has saved the director the fate of cinematic disappearance which has befallen so many other distinctive English filmmakers. It is great to see such a unique voice making feature films once more.
The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from a 1952 Terence Rattigan play, arrived in a year of revivals and tributes marking the centenary of Rattigan’s birth. Adapting a play to the big screen was a new experience for Davies and the results look fantastic. The attention to detail in the set design gives both a feeling for the time and the suggestion of a theatre set – the viewer’s eyes are drawn to wander across the period wallpaper and the mirrors reflecting the characters. The work of the director, set designer and cinematographer do well to capture the world of the play with the muted colours of austerity Britain enriched by the odd bits of finery we see on screen.
The basic story is that of a love triangle: Lady Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) attempts suicide and looks back to what led her to that point, from her beginning an affair with ex-R.A.F. pilot, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddlestone) to escape her flat-lined marriage to successful judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) and her struggles to remain happy in her new financially strained lifestyle. All three actors perform well and the film sets up its key moments to deliver Rattigan’s sharp lines fantastically. There are some very nice touches and some great interplay between the actors. Weisz’s central performance (she features in nearly every scene which conveys that this is her retelling of events) is captivating. Her scenes with Simon Russell Beale seem to come across slightly better than those with Hiddlestone. It is hard to tell whether this is an awkwardness in what we see of their relationship on screen – while there is a nice balance in the scenes of the Hester/William relationship, the Hester/Freddie relationship does make you wonder where the attraction could ever have been. Yet somewhere in all of this, the film just doesn’t seem to work on the whole.
During the director’s commentary, Davies mentions a couple of visual steals from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Interestingly, the Lean film that jumps out even more than Brief Encounter for comparison with Davies’ film is The Passionate Friends (1949) –the love triangle in Lean’s film being played by Trevor Howard, Claude Rains and Ann Todd. It is unfair to compare the films but I couldn’t help think that despite such attention to authentic detail, the great camera work, solid performances and neat editing, The Deep Blue Sea just lacks something which makes the human tragedy of the tale appear to sing more in Lean’s film. Is it just a nostalgic view of the classic film that allows the viewer to suspend disbelief and get caught up in the drama that is harder to find for a more recent film? A similar comparison could be made for the emotions felt when watching Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) compared to Douglas Sirk’s over the top but emotionally powerful melodrama All that Heaven Allows (1955). Is it that in striving to achieve authenticity the filmmaker delivers images where the viewer’s eyes become too distracted by the wallpaper, the furniture, and the accurate period product placement to pay attention to the interplay of the actors? Is it just a lack of magic dust?
Perhaps the editing of the film, which itself is neat and tidy with some great flourishes, falls short in its episodic segments, to create a great on-screen drama. While Weisz’s performance is captivating and the camera follows her well, there is an overall sense that she is sleepwalking through most of the film. This may well be deliberate, it fits with her character, and she does look good but it feels that for the majority of the film we observe but don’t really engage with the characters. It may be that this just amplifies the tragedy of the play and the hopeless situation that Hester finds herself in.
The Deep Blue Sea is far from a failure and more than worth watching for its beautiful colour schemes, wonderful use of Samuel Barber’s music on the score and its key sequences, many of which are memorable – especially the scenes in which the male characters bare their teeth delivering incredibly cutting lines. This may well be a film which improves with subsequent viewings and the subtleties of the interactions between Weisz and Hiddlestone may grow more apparent. It is also a film that fits well into Terence Davies’ unique body of work and, despite the feeling that there is something amiss and that the film falls slightly short of what its elements suggest, it is a good strong piece of British film making, more thought-provoking and less formulaic than some recently ‘successful’ films made upon these shores.