The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Director: Terence Davies

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I did something strange the other day—I picked up a book at the library by a British author known for writing old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned values aimed at women in or approaching their golden years. My reason for choosing the book had to do with trying to suppress a bleak and angry outlook that has seized me in recent weeks, to escape into a fantasy of romance and tradition and charm. After about 60 pages, the plot conveniences, cliché-filled language, and attitudes about women with which I vehemently disagree shook me out of my fog and, if not exactly in the finest shape to face the world, I nonetheless saw that looking backward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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It seems that director Terence Davies, 67, is experiencing even more acutely the pull of the past. His 2008 poetic documentary Of Time and the City revealed the passage of time and the frailty of the physical as filtered through the environs of his hometown of Liverpool. With The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has lifted a 1952 chestnut from the British stage penned by Terence Rattigan, who would come to defy the trend in British theatre and film of so-called kitchen sink realism that bowed in 1959 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Rattigan and Davies, both gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, could justifiably claim anger in their works. Their attraction, however, is to the refinement and moral uprightness of the days of empire, their sensibilities lodged squarely in the coded gay traditions of the stage and screen.

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Sadly for Davies, his loathing of his sexual orientation and acute nostalgia have sent him into something of an artistic neverland. I say this with enormous regret, as his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of my very favorite films, is admirably clear-eyed about the rot beneath the veneer of high society while still exploring the tragedy of a fatal love. The Deep Blue Sea is squarely in the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date. To recreate one of these films in 2011 without burrowing beneath the gay code or reflecting on contemporary attitudes toward a sexual coming of age makes this brand-new film a premature museum piece.

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Set in 1950, The Deep Blue Sea tells with unabashed sentiment the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a young woman married to a kind, older member of the peerage, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who is awakened from her comfortably dull life by the raffish sexuality of Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, an RAF pilot during World War II, is restless and angry, offering an avatar of adventure and danger from his experiences that Hester finds bewitching. She believes she loves Freddie, so unacquainted is she with lust that she can’t distinguish one emotion from the other. Freddie remains tantalizingly out of reach, treating her with an offhand contempt for her bourgeois romanticism and inexperience. When her despair drives her to the suicide attempt that opens the film, Freddie is deeply offended that she absolves him of blame in a note she left for him, a magnanimity he neither needs nor believes, and determines to end the affair. Despite her husband’s willingness to take her back, Hester won’t put the genie back in the bottle, preferring to live in misery rather than to feel nothing at all.

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On its surface, this is a story worth telling, one of a sexual and emotional awakening that sets its protagonist on the path to leading a more authentic life. Yet, in the oh-so-stately telling, there’s not much to distinguish The Deep Blue Sea from a Victorian frolic like Lady Windemere’s Fan except for its lack of wit. My, this story could have used a bit of Oscar Wilde’s social buffoonery or Douglas Sirk’s playful gay coding or even some down-to-earth sincerity. As directed by Davies, Simon Russell Beale plays a very nice man whose impeccable breeding and good English sportsmanship won’t allow him a moment of messy breakdown even though his life has just cracked wide open. The direction he’s given to be mild-mannered and magnanimous is, I suppose, Davies’ attempt to show the passionless marriage Hester is running away from, but Sir William just seems kind of pathetic and insubstantial. Surely Hester’s suicide attempt must have been at least partly a provocation to her husband’s maddening even-temperedness, but nothing about their relationship manages to break the surface.

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Hiddleston’s Freddie comes off as a bit of rough trade, shouting incongruously like a caricature of the Angry Young Man, dumping on Hester without apparent motivation other than his slim backstory as a damaged war veteran. In the beginning of their affair, he and Hester certainly do seem physically magnetized, and I appreciated the sensuality that flairs through a couple of scenes. Their parting, perhaps the best scene of the film, gives Hiddleston a chance to show his tenderness and humanity as well.

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The one redeeming facet of The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz. Rather than fall into the Harlequin Romance notion of a suffering woman in love, Weisz fills her Hester with genuine emotion. You can practically smell her longing for Freddie, feel her slightly contemptuous regret at hurting her husband, understand her seemingly foolish resolve to remain outside the comforting confines of her marriage after Freddie throws her over. When Davies gives us the cliché of a back alley through which Hester walks to find Freddie at the local, his frequent home away from the one-room flat they share in London, her posture shows that her helpless addiction to Freddie sits on her like the proverbial monkey on her back.

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Davies is enraptured with Weisz’s limpid eyes, perhaps too much so. For all her beauty, Hester comes off as a weepy drudge too often in his hands. Worse perhaps, after the activity of Hester sealing her digs off so that she can die from gas asphyxiation and a somewhat cinematic start at letting her life flash back in her mind’s eye, nothing much happens. I’m surprised that the normally theatre-phobic film critics who have been captivated by Weisz haven’t torn this film a new one for being so stagey. With three anemic central characters, the film just becomes a boring slog, relieved at moments by the earthy pragmatism of Hester and Freddie’s landlady (Ann Mitchell) and the savage elitism of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother.

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It is equally baffling to me why this film generally has been critically embraced whereas the 2012 film that bears a close resemblance to it in theme, Anna Karenina, has foundered. Admittedly, the latter film is more modeled on the costume epic, whereas The Deep Blue Sea is a women’s film, yet Anna Karenina makes deliberate, effective use of theatricality to forward the story, whereas Davies’ film seems retrograde in nearly every respect. Even the cinematography, which Davies normally codirects with unusual aplomb, is all misty memory. Like Of Time and the City, this film feels too personal a project for me to relate to.

  • Roderick spoke:
    31st/12/2012 to 8:21 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who felt more oppressed than impressed by this leaden, excruciatingly self-serious attempt to repaint a dated play as an arty meditation on the past. I couldn’t get past how little Davies did to shake up the play’s modest collection of clichés and shallow characters – the momma’s boy pathos of Sir William and the criticality of his mother – and the obviousness of the dramatics – he’s a judge, so he’s judgmental, get it? The passion of Hester and Freddie’s relationship came through in glimmers in the flashbacks, but nowhere near enough – Davies’ conceit over making it a remembered, remote thing, equivalent to his remembered, remote vision of Britain during and just after the war, was laboured, and conspired to make the whole thing feel less like a drama being acted out by flesh and blood people than an exercise in maudlin wallowing and faintly suspect nostalgia, to remind us that this is a Grumpy Old Man’s exercise in cheerless, doughy retrospection.

    Yes, Weisz was very good, but like the film in a kind of utterly cheerless heavyweight slog fashion: you could never forget that you’re watching ACTING! Whereas Hiddleston did allow me to forget that: his playing of Freddie’s real yet faintly calculated anger at Hester was effective. But in the end I think Davies was in love with the very stuffiness of it all, in a way that’s not particularly enlightening; Hester hates the three-piece-suit, doily and silver spoon smugness of Sir William’s world, and yet Davies fetishises it more the sake of recreating the feel of the world he was young in than for the sake of the actual drama at hand. I think Davies might have made a different, better movie if he’d made the whole thing in the key of that marvellous scene in the subway during the bombing raid.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/12/2012 to 10:19 pm

    Rod – I did feel that subway scene had a life the rest of the film lacked, something invented and not part of the play. I was not enamored of Hiddleston except for the last scene, and I agree about the ACTING comment, though I don’t think that was anyone’s fault but Davies. He was, I think, just working something out for himself, certainly not giving the audience anything to chew on.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 12:02 am

    Wow I am completely on the other side of the fence with both of you here, though as of late this seems to be the norm.

    Still I’m confident there will be far more agreement in 2013. First of all I think THE DEEP BLUE SEA is a far better film than ANNA KARENINA, and for me is among the ten best films of the year. It is indeed meditative, but in the service of desire and self-destruction, and the film is suffused with a melancholic aire of loneliness and fatalism. It’s a tone poem that is far more concerned with establishing a tragic mood, entwined in the same conceit that was touched upon in Lean’s 1945 BRIEF ENCOUNTER but far more contextually realized in Ophuls’ LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMEN and Wyler’s THE HEIRESS, both of which show the man balking at return love. Davies compresses events into moments, posing the power of memory,, and ultimately his language is purely visual, allowing his camera to capture psychological verisimilitude. There’s vulnerbility, bitterness, foolhardy behavior and some big, deeply-felt emotions woven into a visual scheme with precise and amazing compositional control, enhanced by strings and Barber’s beautiful and mornful Violin Concerto, again establishing Davies incomparable ability to heighten emotion with a seamless fusion of image and music. There’s the dominant conflict of desire vs. restraint, and the film is anything but maudlin (one of Rod’s complaint) but is visually provocative, ultilyzing Florian Hofmester’s smoky, soft focus cinematography that yields a fine eye for lighting. The film is exquisitely designed, and Weisz performance (boy did she deserve the New York Film Critics Award she won for Best Actress!) tells more with her eyes than any number of Terrence Rattigan’s dialogue. Davies has allowed the cinema to transcrive a theatrical work.

    For me all bets are off when we try to analyze it in literary terms. That is not understanding or appreciating Davies’ art. And if that art is rendered as incidental in any film he crafts, well then there can’t ever be room for agreement. We are approaching this material with different expectations and perceptions.

    As always Marilyn, you have penned a thought-provoking, expertly-written piece that beyond all it’s value as astute criticism will inspire some debate.

    Happy New Year to all.

  • Pinko Punko spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 12:43 am

    I can only talk about House of Mirth one of my favorite novels (so devastating I could only read it once), but I did see the film- and I though it was excellent. In my head I picture Daniel Day Lewis (of Scorsese’s Age of Innocence in the Eric Stoltz role, and that would have taken the Davies film over the top in exceptional territory. Gillian was phenomenal, and the thin budget stretched to its limit. Stoltz was decent but a little passive and I know that character is more an observer than actor, but someone of greater internal turmoil would have helped. Thanks very much to this site for such great writing from all contributors all year. Happy New Year!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 9:13 am

    Sam – I had a feeling you’d be on the opposite side of opinion on this film. You know I wanted to like it, and I’m not unsympathetic with older directors surveying their own history. Raul Ruiz did a marvelous job of it in Night Across the Street. But the film just felt stale to me and lacking Davies’ ability to get at the complexities of his material. As for the use of the Barber, I wish we could retire that piece from setting a mournful mood; it is overused for this purpose.

    Sam, thanks for being such a great friend and commenter. Happy New Year to you, Lucille, and the kids!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 9:14 am

    Pinko Punko – It has been great having you on the site, and thank you for your kind compliment. I agree about Stoltz, but he didn’t take down the film, fortunately, one that showed a more rigid control and clear head than this one does. Happy New Year to you, too. Hope to see you in 2013.

  • Pat spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 10:08 am

    Marilyn –
    Happy New Yeat to you and Rod!
    I’m afraid I’m much more in Sam’s court on this one (“tone poem” is one description that occurred to me as well), although I found your review interesting and thought-provoking. It seemed to me to be a Sirk melodrama filtered through the dreay fog of post-war England, and I thought Rachel Weisz was wonderful. But as you correctly note, the ‘gay-coding’ is more muted and devoid of wit. I understand there is an earlier film versionm with Vivien Leigh as Hester that is also worthwhile, if stylistically completely different, and I’d like to see that one as well.
    I hope we will run into each other at a film in 2013. I’ve spent the last week happily immersed in the Mark Cousins documentary series THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY, and am resolved to expand my experience of word cinema in the coming year as a result. Hopefully that will get me to the Siskel and/or Facets much more often.

  • Pat spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 10:10 am

    Oops – that’d be Happy New YEAR, not yeat! My typing skills are not improving with age!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/01/2013 to 10:19 am

    Hi Pat, and Happy New Yeat to you , too! :-) Your presence here and elsewhere has been a joy this year, one I look forward to in the coming year as well, and I do hope we can meet up in the city for a screening or three (especially the CIFF). I also guessed that you might like this film more than I did. Ah well, I’m glad so many people didn’t feel their time was wasted watching it. I just wish Davies had performed some alchemy on the dated material and given it some resonance for today’s world. I couldn’t relate.

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