Sunday, December 9, 2012


With various national societies of film critics about to vote on their favourite films of the past year, Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is one being considered for acclaim. Steve Vineberg, in Critics at Large, though has a contrary view.

The Deep Blue Sea: Reduced Rattigan

Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea

Among the various revivals staged to pay tribute to the English playwright Terence Rattigan around his 2011 centenary, possibly the most unwelcome is his countryman Terence Davies’ film of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. Davies is a pictorialist, not a dramatist; the movies that made his reputation, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992, were art-house chotchkes, with images that looked too much like tableaux and characters he hadn’t bothered to fill in. You could see the influence of the Brechtian-Freudian writer Dennis Potter (Pennies from HeavenThe Singing Detective), especially in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which contained a number of pub sing-alongs, but he didn’t move through his ideas to any sort of life underneath. Davies is the filmmaker equivalent of the Robin Bailey character in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can, who collects pop mementos that, lovingly preserved in an airless setting, removed from any context that might have given them meaning, have become a kind of living dead.

Davies moved on to adaptations with his 2000 version of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the tragic heroine, Lily Bart, gave that movie a raison d’être. But except for her and a few of the supporting players (especially Eleanor Bron and Elizabeth McGovern) it had no more life in it than his previous efforts. You watched the actors parading around in impeccable costumes against impeccable sets, and you didn't believe who they said they were or that they represented the society Wharton wrote about. Most of the actors seemed miscast, and implausible in an early twentieth-century setting, and since Davies encouraged them to read their dialogue with a mannered crispness, you got the sense that he didn't want us to believe them in period. The movie came across as a semi-post-modern take on the novel – which really deserved better. (And it had already received it, in a 1981 television edition starring Geraldine Chaplin.)

Kenneth More and Vivien Leigh in Anatole Litvak's 1955 film
The Deep Blue Sea is considerably worse, especially for anyone who might know Rattigan’s original or the modest, intelligent 1955 movie version directed by Anatole Litvak. The play, which was written for the great Peggy Ashcroft, is about Hester Collyer, a middle-aged woman who has left her husband, a judge, for a man younger than she by a decade or more, a now unemployed test pilot who is in every way her inferior – not just in class and education but in depth and complexity. After ten months of living with him in a middle-class flat and feeling emotionally neglected – and acutely conscious of his inability to love her with the fervor she feels for him – she bungles an attempt at suicide, arousing the concern of the other inhabitants of the flat, one of whom discovers who her husband is and telephones him. In the course of the day during which the play unfolds (Rattigan preserves the classical unities of time, place and action), Hester turns down her husband’s offer to take her back and resists but ultimately gives in to her lover’s decision to end their relationship. Rattigan’s layered comprehension of the delicacy of human interaction (both the husband, Bill, and the lover, Freddie, are drawn with compassion and tact) and his theatrical savvy are both clearly in evidence in the Litvak movie, which adds a couple of trim, effective flashbacks to the beginning of Hester and Freddie’s romance. But if you’re lucky enough to have seen the picture – it isn’t on DVD and it rarely shows up on television – then what you’re likely to remember most vividly is Vivien Leigh’s performance as Hester, whose anguish has wearied her but not blunted the edge of her feelings for Freddie (Kenneth More, recreating the role he played in the West End). Blythe Danner was equally remarkable in a revival at the Roundabout Theatre in 1998 (with Edward Herrmann as Bill): she gave Hester’s passion for Freddie a startling sexual explicitness.

As Hester in the Davies film, Rachel Weisz isn’t bad, considering that she’s too young for the part so levels of meaning in the character simply get erased, and considering that she, along with the rest of the actors, is directed to take Rattigan’s drawing-room-drama dialogue so slowly that you end up growing tired of her. The text isn’t high comedy, but it needs to be played at pretty nearly the same tempo; Davies, unlike Rattigan, has no idea how to recreate conversational rhythms. The movie isn’t inordinately long but it seems to go on for an eternity, and nothing that Davies does with it, either as director or as screenwriter, makes any sense. Hester’s reminiscences of her life with her husband are rendered in a series of honeyed, soft-focus images, as if Davies couldn’t tell the difference between moviemaking and scrapbooking, and the movie is so badly cut up that it often feels like an extended trailer for some swoony romantic melodrama – Brief Encounter, maybe, but with sex. Not that the sex helps, since Davies shoots it from the air, moving his camera with pointed curiosity so that the sequence feels like an abstracted anatomy lesson. (It takes the longest time to work out exactly what we’re supposed to focus on.) Sometimes the soundtrack is amplified, pointlessly, and one scene begins with dust drifting – poetically, I imagine Davies thinks – from the ceiling. He sets one of Hester’s quarrels with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) in a pub but we can’t make out what they’re saying because they’re shouting at each other over a pub sing-along, and Davies is more interested in that. He stages two of these pub sings, though God knows why he thinks anyone might want to look at them. And there’s a real baffler: a flashback to the Blitz, where some dude sings “Molly Malone” in a tube station.

Simon Russell Beale and Rachel Weisz
Davies adds a lot of dialogue of his own, too, and every time he gets close to Rattigan’s play he simplifies it with some cliché from seventy-five bad old movies. In a flashback to the final days of Hester’s marriage to Bill (Simon Russell Beale), they visit his dreadful old mother (Barbara Jefford), who makes them sleep in twin beds and lectures about the dangers of passion, recommending instead “a guarded enthusiasm – it’s safer.” It’s like Pinter written by someone with a tin ear. Poor Beale is stuck in this scene playing Bill as a mama’s boy, though we’re not supposed to think he’s gay, and then of course when he returns after Hester’s suicide attempt and gets to read Rattigan’s actual lines, it’s as if he’s playing some other character entirely. Bill’s decency and his concern for the wife who abandoned him are touching, and Beale is very good in the scenes Rattigan actually penned.

In the play, Freddie’s anger at Hester when he finds out that she’s tried to kill herself comes out of feelings of inadequacy: he knows that his affection for her can’t match up to her love for him, and he feels judged for failing to come up to the mark. The force of her love suffocates him, so inevitably he runs away from her. Davies adds a nonsensical scene – shot, if I’m not mistaken, at London’s Courtauld Gallery – in which he complains about her superior attitude and reminds her that during the war it was men like him who saved civilization for snobs like her. Davies has this beautiful little play with three marvelously drawn characters and he wants to reduce it to some platitudes about class? Worse, he gives the landlady, Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), who’s caring for a fading husband, a self-righteous speech in which she trumpets her notion of love – that it means wiping your husband’s ass and cleaning the sheets when he wets himself and letting him keep his dignity. So when Hester opts not to try to kill herself again after Freddie departs, are we’re supposed to think that she’s taken Mrs. Elton’s words to heart and realizes how selfish she’s been? The Deep Blue Sea is shockingly bad. 

- originally published on April 20, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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