Monday 5 December 2011

Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2011)

Terence Rattigans centenary has been commemorated by several major stagings of the playwrights work this year - including London revivals of Flare Path and Cause Celebre, and an excellent season at Chichester which presented The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version alongside new plays inspired by Rattigan’s life and work.  Apart from a series of films and TV adaptations screened at BFI Southbank, cinema has been slower to celebrate Rattigans achievements, however, despite his close association with the medium throughout the 1940s and 50s. 

So the news that Terence Davies would be making his first fiction feature in eleven years with an adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale in the lead roles was a particular cause for celebration, especially for those of us who admire Rattigan and Davies just about equally. Unfortunately, though, and despite some striking and affecting individual moments, the meeting of Terry and Terry hasn’t quite resulted in the perfect marriage that might have been anticipated.

Along with The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea is recognised as Rattigan’s most flawlessly-constructed work - the epitome of the “well-made play,” indeed - its water-tight three act structure presenting the final few hours in the affair between Hester Collyer and her younger ex-RAF lover Freddie as they play out in a shabby London boarding house.

Resisting the idea of “just photographing the play,” Davies has - unsurprisingly and justifiably - transformed that structure, developing a non-linear narrative that presents episodes from Hester’s past with Freddie (Hiddleston) and her husband William (Russell Beale) in counterpoint with her present situation, and that clearly reflects Davies’s own abiding concern with the workings of memory. (Unlike the play, the film presents the events entirely from Hester’s point-of-view.) Always strong on ambience, Davies evokes the drear of 1950s London with the feeling with which he conjured 50s Liverpool in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), Florian Hoffmeister’s misty, soft-focus cinematography and James Merifield's production design sustaining a distinctive - though not precisely pleasurable - oppressive mood. The opening is masterly: a nine-minute sequence scored to Samuel Barber’s gorgeously intense Violin Concerto that pans from the Ladbroke Grove street up the front of the boarding house to find Hester in the throes of her suicide attempt. Davies-land (milk bottles on the doorstep, sounds of “the wireless”) and Rattigan-land form a perfect synthesis here. And the ending - a beautifully-judged reverse of this sequence - is similarly strong.

It’s in the middle that things get a little sticky, at times. For it’s hard not to conclude that, in re-jigging the play’s structure, Davies has removed the material’s dramatic motor. The film drifts and dribbles, tension (and humour) dissipating in sequences that sometimes feel stilted and look posed. And the new scenes and characters that Davies has devised don’t, for the most part, seem like improvements upon those he’s excised. Especially ill-advised is a bogus early sequence - striving for bitchy wit and missing the target - that finds Hester facing off with her monstrous mummy-in-law (Barbara Jefford), the latter helpfully underlining the societal forces that Hester is up against when she intones “Beware of passion... It always leads to something ugly.” (The first part of that quote has become the film’s tagline.) As Hester’s parson pater the great Oliver Ford Davies is wasted in a similarly superfluous scene in which Hester seeks his counsel (in church! Wouldn’t he grant her an audience at home?) only to be rebuffed. Such moments seem, for Davies, atypically crass ways of ensuring audience sympathy with Hester, and emphasising the rebelliousness of her actions.

Elsewhere, the director’s movie-ardour leads him into a few unfortunate indulgences too, including a Blitz flashback that seems to express nothing more than the filmmaker’s pleasure at devising an elaborate tracking shot, and a Brief Encounter homage for Hester’s second suicide attempt. (It might have been more fun if Davies had had Hester and Freddie duck into an illicit matinee at one point - to watch Alec and Laura ducking into their illicit matinee in Brief Encounter, perhaps?)

There's a crucial piece of miscasting, too, I'd argue. Weisz's commitment to the role is evident in every scene, and she acquits herself admirably throughout. But even in her strongest moments here (such as a great final scene) her performance never completely transcends the fact that she seems about ten years too young for the role, an issue that, I think, does diminish our sense of Hester's transgressiveness in falling for Freddie in the first place. (“She looks younger than he does,” mused my companion at one point.) And the re-ordering of the scenes impacts upon the arc of the character: as Davies has re-arranged the material, Hester becomes more hysterical when Freddie storms out for the evening than she does when he announces that he’s leaving her for good.

Even though he’s been directed to overdo Freddie’s RAF-slang and his belligerence (especially in an over-pitched argument scene set in an art gallery), the engaging Hiddleston comes through with a good performance. Two pub singalong scenes - quintessential Davies moments, of course - turn out to be two of the finest innovations here, adding more to our sense of Freddie and Hester’s relationship than most of the new dialogue does.

And, playing William the cuckold, it’s great to see Simon Russell Beale in a decent screen role for once. Hester and William's scenes here may lack the deep sense of complicity and history that other actors have brought to them, but Russell Beale conveys William’s predicament with touching understatement. And Davies succeeds in bringing out the poignancy of this triangle, made up of three protagonists who all desire different kinds of love.

But apart from Harry Hadden-Paton, who’s likeable in an expanded role as Freddie’s friend Jackie Jackson, the supporting roles feel somewhat mismanaged. As Miller, Karl Johnson suffers the most from the cuts, his pivotal role - which, according to Davies, “no-one is convinced by” - reduced to a bit of disgruntled comic business. Ann Mitchell portrays the grimmest Mrs. Elton ever seen before being transformed into a sentimentalised salt-of-the-earth font-of-wisdom towards the end, replacing Miller as the person to shift Hester’s perspective on her situation with the pearl: “Suicide? No-one’s worth it.” (Now how about that as the movie’s tag-line?)

Davies’s two previous adaptations - the underrated The Neon Bible (1995) and the great The House of Mirth (2000) - seemed like pretty seamless, dynamic mergings of his highly distinctive sensibility and those of the creators of the novels. Here, in contrast, the director’s admirable but sometimes heavy-handed drive to cinematise Rattigan’s material proves less successful overall. There are, to be sure, many elements to admire in Davies’s Deep Blue Sea. But along the way a level of intensity seems to have gone missing.

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