The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box Films, R)

The-Deep-Blue-Sea-2011-2After successful on-stage runs for The Deep Blue Sea on both sides of the Atlantic, you can now see it in an exquisite, if at times tedious, film adaptation by Terence Davies.


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Terence Rattigan was the toast of the London stage for about a decade, from the end of World War II to the advent of the Angry Young Men. Once audiences got a taste of Jimmy Porter stomping his way through polite society in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, there was simply no going back to genteel suffering and solid predictability of Separate Tables or The Browning Version.

Time does have a way of overturning aesthetic judgments, however, and, after successful on-stage runs for The Deep Blue Sea on both sides of the Atlantic, you can now see it in an exquisite, if at times tedious, film adaptation by Terence Davies.

Davies’ approach is to extract the emotional essence of Rattigan’s work, the doomed and self-destructive love of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), while giving us just enough of the play’s action to provide a backstory for its central event. The film begins with a long crane shot leading into the shabby flat where Hester attempts to take her own life. Most of the story is told in flashback, in a dreamlike, almost achronological succession of memories of the good times and bad times that brought her to this point. It then ends with a bookend shot leading from the flat out into the rubble-strewn street (it’s the early 1950s, and London has not yet recovered from the bombings of World War II).

And why is Hester trying to kill herself? She’s made a regular mess out of her life, marrying well while also keeping a lower-class lover on the side. Her husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), is a successful lawyer, and while he may be a bit distant, it’s hard to see how he deserves such disrespect. It’s also hard to see why Hester persists in her affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), who was quite the charmer before the war, but returned from it, in his own words, FUBAR and given to drunkenness and abuse. It’s clear we’re supposed to sympathize with Hester’s pure and hopeless love, but there are times when you want to just throw a shilling at her to feed the gas fire.

The Deep Blue Sea is at its best when Davies is evoking melancholy rather than telling the naturalistic story that lies behind it. The visuals and the soundtrack (making heavy use of Barber’s violin concerto, performed by Hilary Hahn) approach the sublime, while the dialogue can be plodding and the story is decidedly dated. As Norma Desmond would have said, it’s a shame they had to open their big mouths and talk. The film’s theme is announced in a particularly on-the-nose exchange between Hester and her dreadful mother-in-law, in which they are ostensibly talking about golf, but obviously going much deeper:

Hester: I just find it hard to be very passionate about it.

Mrs. Collyer: Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.

Hester: What would you replace it with?

Mrs. Collyer: A guarded enthusiasm. It’s safer.

Of course, we wouldn’t have a story if Hester took that advice, but it’s still not all that exciting to watch it played out. It helps if you keep in mind that Rattigan said Hester was inspired by a young man he was in love with, that the young man took his own life, and that Rattigan knew a thing or two about secrecy and forbidden love from living in a period when the expression of his sexual preference was a criminal offense. Unfortunately, that only helps a bit, so here’s my review in a nutshell: Come for the music and the visuals, put up with the story, and enjoy a rare feature film from a master filmmaker. | Sarah Boslaugh

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