March 22, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Deep Blue Sea

by Vadim Rizov

The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan's 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea has been filmed before, but all director Terence Davies remembers of the 1955 incarnation (which he saw during childhood with his mother) is a shot of Kenneth More walking down a staircase. It makes sense that his version is less an adaptation than a hallucinatory recollection, a mostly wordless rendition of a wordy drama. Rachel Weisz is Hester Collyer, her most tightly coiled and miserable screen character since 2005's The Constant Gardener. The ostensible source of Hester's unhappiness is her adultery, which at the film's beginning has led to a suicide attempt. As she slips deeper into a death-spiral reverie, we see a compressed version of her affair with ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), until she's slapped awake, a brutal return to the real world after a failed escape.

In honor of her Scarlet Letter namesake, Hester's literally a woman in red, her bright dresses accentuating her rebellion against the gray landscape of Davies' 1950s childhood. ("It was drab," he recently noted. "You rarely saw primary colours.") Husband William (Simon Russell Beale) means well but cowers before his maliciously/piously class-standard-bearing mother (Barbara Jefford). "Beware of passion, Hester," she says over dinner, suggesting instead "a guarded enthusiasm. It's much safer."

The Deep Blue Sea

William is middle-aged and oval-shaped, while ex-pilot Freddie Page looks like Leslie Howard and bubbles with enthusiasm left over from the war. His pick-up line—"I really think you're the most attractive girl I've ever met"—is followed by a pub session where he agitatedly describes his wartime feats ("We were doing something important for dear old Blighty"). The combined romantic and nationalistic ardor's enough to get Hester into bed. Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister's camera spins disinterestedly over copulation, turning slo-mo lovemaking into doom-laden writhing.

Freddie turns out to be a heavy drinker whose binges are triggered by Hester’s neediness. He bridles over what he perceives as her intellectual condescension, screaming without self-awareness "There's nothing wrong with my mind." William refuses to consent to a divorce, and Hester's difficulty in finding a place for herself in the world is as much legal as emotional: she's living in sin with Freddie under a false name, opening herself to charges of adultery, and even her attempted suicide is finable. Interviewing Davies in November, The Guardian's Stuart Jeffries posited that Davies' sympathy for Hester comes from his longstanding devotion to his abused mother, dramatized in his first feature Distant Voices, Still Lives. Of her decision to stay with abusive husband with ten children, he noted "If you had a bad marriage, that was it." Hester's choice to actively decimate her marriage is one Davies' mother never could have made, but her options are still remarkably constricted.

The Deep Blue Sea

In Davies' on-record reasoning, Weisz discovers sex late and the ensuing fallout nearly kills her. This is a plausible interpretation of material that's nonetheless opaque: what aspect of sex, precisely, drives her crazy? It could just be guilt over giving in urges proscribed by her husband's class or unhappiness over how little autonomy she has. Weisz is a Jewish actress among prototypical non-ethnic Brits, and there's a hint of something more than mere class-based friction when she tears up at her fiance's mother’s jibes. One possibly apocryphal rumor states the drama began as the story of a gay man's suicide over a socially ruinous affair in which the lead was transformed at the last second, Lars von Trier-style, into a woman. These resonances suggest Hester's despair is a stand-in for broader social unease experienced by a variety of marginalized British citizens.

Davies' post-wartime romance is extensively cross-referenced. When Weisz and Hiddleston lean in for an outdoor kiss, they're standing in front of a telephone booth. He's wearing Trevor Howard's hat from Brief Encounter, the classic 1945 David Lean almost-affair that takes root in a train station. A train whistle blows rudely in the background, its lights underlining the two leads' blazing attraction to each other. Later, Hiddleston flatly declares "It's over," and a much fainter whistle subliminally reinforces the statement.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA director Terence Davies

Davies has acknowledged that the most striking sequence is stolen directly from Lean's unfairly neglected 1949 romantic drama The Passionate Friends. There, a adulterous woman in a despairing stupor is saved from jumping under a subway car by the last-minute emergence of her forgiving husband. What rescues Hester here is, oddly, a memory of the same train station as a bomb shelter during a WWII raid. The recollection of standing there, singing alongside her fellow Londoners, pulls her back from the platform edge. She may not have had the proverbial "good war," but this flashback helps her sympathize with tormented Freddie’s seeming wish the war was still on.

Fetishizing every detail of the past regardless of its narrative function is an uncomfortable basis for nostalgia. The hissing gas during Hester’s suicide attempt has a seductive analogue purr, and the fact that a memory of a bombing blitz heartens her is unnerving. The Deep Blue Sea is gorgeous, but it's emotionally sealed-off. Hiddleston and Weisz are both realistically unpleasant throughout, abrasively contradicting Davies' loving recreation of a time driving his heroine to despair, an often trying combination.

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Posted by ahillis at March 22, 2012 10:11 AM