Director: Terence Davies
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.
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.
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the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.