(No longer in theaters)
Music Box Films
Mar 23, 2012
The British director Terence Davies made his name in the eighties and nineties on a series of touching cinematic contemplations of his own youth, in elegant, elliptical films such as The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives. He has since directed a number of adaptations, including 1995’s The Neon Bible and 2000’s The House of Mirth, in which he wedded his own highly controlled aesthetic with the narrative demands of stories by John Kennedy Toole and Edith Wharton, respectively. They, however, were also artists of repressed emotion and submerged lives. Now, with his adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has taken on something of a challenge: Rattigan may have been a genteel writer, but this play about adulterous passion and disillusionment revealed a new emotional nakedness for him. So, too, for Davies, who has somehow found a way into the raw wounds of Rattigan’s work without sacrificing his own glancing, meditative style.
The bravura opening of the film offers a good example of just how Davies goes about it. The camera cranes across a nondescript corner of London to find Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) staring quietly out a window. Inside her simple flat, she turns on the furnace but does not light it — we’ve caught her in the midst of a suicide attempt. As she quietly awaits death, Hester flashes back to scenes from her marriage — to a pleasant, awkward half-smile shared with her older judge husband William (Simon Russell Beale) — and then to her initial meetings with young, charming RAF flier Freddy (Tom Hiddleston), as they strike up an affair. Davies’s ability to blend the particular with the iconic, to turn ordinary moments into something almost mythical, is in fine evidence here. Nary a word is spoken in these scenes, save for brief snatches of dialogue coming from Freddy; the whole thing seems to be taking place inside a beautiful fishbowl. When Hester and Freddy make love, Davies’s camera mostly avoids their faces and pirouettes around their naked, beautiful intertwined legs, so that it’s hard to tell who is who. Their attraction is as much a fact of science as it is a thing of art or desire.
Obviously, though, things haven’t gone well between Hester and Freddy; hence the suicide attempt. Even as it settles a bit more comfortably into its story of romantic disillusionment, The Deep Blue Sea is marked by a kind of profound stasis of choice. Hester has left her husband to follow a passion, but she has found that the passion, for all the joy it may have brought to her, was an empty one — that Freddy is far too selfish and uncertain a figure to ever be able to make her happy, or for that matter to be happy himself. And yet, she can’t return to her former life, however much William still loves her. There’s something brave and tragic about this woman who, in her own quiet way, refuses to choose between comfort and joy.
Generally, artists, especially filmmakers, bring specificity to their characters and scenes, trying to weave such situations into a semblance of the real world. Davies seems to work in the opposite direction. Though he likes elegant, impeccable period re-creations, the movies are all reflection, with characters often stripped of those telling quirks and bits of detail that other filmmakers might use to make them more human. You’d think that this would lead to a kind of emotional distance, but it does precisely the opposite — it heightens our awareness of the moments when the film does settle down into something more specific.
There’s a scene late in The Deep Blue Sea where Hester, her heart already shattered into a million pieces, cleans Freddy’s shoes for him before he leaves her. The moment is pure emotional plutonium; the second time I saw it, I had to actively turn away. And yet, it’s not a melodramatic scene; there’s barely even a close-up, barely any dialogue. Like that quiet, haunting little moment, The Deep Blue Sea is not a showy or pronounced movie. Open yourself up to it, however, and it might destroy you.