With a career redefining performance from Rachel Weisz, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea is a tour de force of classic filmmaking and nostalgia.
When A Dream Appears by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard when adapting a play for the big screen to entirely efface its theatrical roots. But with Terence Davies’ celluloid retelling of Terence Rattigan’s chamber piece The Deep Blue Sea, the vestiges of its humble beginnings bring a board-trodden warmth to Hester’s story, as she peers through the proscenium curtains in her rented room onto the world of passion and possibility beyond. The distillation of drama into the three characters and the private interiors of its locations – boarding house, pub, tube station or lamp-lit street – both remind us affectionately of its stage-bound origins. And yet the almost claustrophobic intimacy in which emotions are excavated suits both Davies’ nostalgic observations and the play’s behind-closed-doors story of illicit love perfectly. All that’s missing is the rhythmic fade-to-black of scene changes marking the story’s spasmodic progression from one act to the next, occasionally snaring us in the more constant swirl of the moving image.
Which isn’t to say The Deep Blue Sea isn’t cinematic, it most certainly is. Whether it’s the Hitchcockian upwards pan from its London street to Hester’s window or the bombastic suicide prologue set to Samuel Barber’s relentless violin concerto, The Deep Blue Sea is a welcomingly masterful piece of filmmaking. At times, as in the drawing room scene of Hester and her husband’s silent glances, there’s an old-fashioned elegance to it, with the suffocating aesthetic of a Fifties film, George Cukor or Douglas Sirk. The camera dives and swirls over Hester and Freddie’s entwined bodies, conjuring images from cigarette smoke or pub singing like a Proustian remembrance of things past, safely guiding us away from gritty, bitter naturalism to a domestic tragedy of hidden passion that dare not speak its name.
With both Terences Davies and Rattigan similarly persuaded, the subtext to The Deep Blue Sea is clear. And yet for a straight story, it’s a complex, fractured matrix that never quite allows itself to be wholly transposed. With its ineffectual, can’t-stand-up-to-mummy husband and its dashing object of unrequited love, the male figures in The Deep Blue Sea aren’t capable of love or passion. And yet Hester too, having committed the nobody-harming crime of attempted suicide is the gay man’s equivalent, yearning for an impossible passion beyond the confines of expectation and disappointed by the all too fragile throes of an immoral love. There are several hints too from the story’s moral touchstone, hard as nails landlord Mrs Elton, who urges, with a live and let live libertarianism at odds with the postwar war on morality, that people go to jail for all sorts of reasons and what people do in private should be left there, refusing to either condone or condemn.
There’s a Fifties’ hopelessness to her gay-inflected story, both unable (or unwilling) to take up her prescribed position in the patriarchy to assist and adorn first father then husband, or to be loved by the childlike Freddie who can’t love her like she loves him or even remember her birthday. Tom Hiddleston is magnificent as the indefatigably puppylike returning hero, who never quite manages to escape the thrill of the present and build himself a future, filling the self-conscious gaps in their compatibility with drink and jokes – the Cubists are just bric a Braque, but the Impressionists only did it for the Monet. Reduced to a choice between making tea and jostling pleasantries with Lady Collyer senior and living like Tantalus at the shore of passion, Hester is well and truly caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
And despite a generously understated performance from Simon Russell Beale, Rachel Weisz steals the show, finally given the opportunity to really shine. Her platform-side tear-infused performance, as the underground train she chooses not to jump under thunders past, lighting her eyes with windowed reflections and ruffling her immaculate hair, is astounding. As are the painful negotiations with her comfortingly come-hither ex-husband and her pained desperation as she begs Freddie to come back to her. But there are flashbacks to a happier time too, the amorous couple singing You Belong To Me in a pub snug, mistakenly optimistic it’ll be for ever or wartime memories of sheltering at Aldwych tube station, avoiding the Blitz and singing Cockles And Mussels – oh to be alive. Alive, oh.
Such is the nostalgic warmth with which Davies infuses Rattigan’s play, along with postwar England’s scandalised outrage at emotions being aired in public. Hester’s desperate yearning for romance rather than her made marriage echoes the rationed Fifties’ love of celluloid glamour, as well as the gay man’s rejection of criminality and his thirst for illicit affection. In the end, Hester’s attempted suicide is more than a momentary dissatisfaction with her lot, caught between the easy emptiness of playing Lady Collyer and the unbalanced passion she wields. Her infidelity may free her from the straight and narrow path, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, real love only revealing itself in Mrs Elton’s bitter truth – love is painful, dirty and unpredictable. Love is changing the sheets and wiping the arse of your loved one so they may keep their dignity; a simple truth, devoid of all selfishness or self-flattering emotion.
With its sublimated story of a same-sex love triangle, it’s hard to imagine how impossibly taboo-breaking it would still be to cast a man in Hester’s role; gay melodrama is still required to wear the straight jacket of heterosexual respectability lest it become impossibly overblown and camp. But as Hester opens her curtains onto her new world of possibility in a scene which bookends her opening valediction to the world, she’s no longer in between her two loves but beyond them, striking out on a brand new path. Like the camera tracking down the debris-filled street, it might be an overgrown and hazardous wilderness, but filled with excitement and fear, finally this is her own private passion.
Moving, masterfully cinematic and deliciously styled, The Deep Blue Sea is a beautifully grand piece of filmmaking. And with Rattigan’s subtext, Rachel Weisz’s performance and Terence Davies looking back in fondness, the film is a stroke of genius which brings out the best in everyone.
The Deep Blue Sea is released in the UK on 25th November 2011