It wouldn’t be a Terence Davies film without a singsong, or several singsongs. In Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), the bleak, powerful, autobiographical movie that brought the director to worldwide attention, the singing took on a ritualistic dimension. Every time the Liverpool locals sang, one felt a few more nails had been hammered into the manacles that kept them tethered to their working-class existences. The singing had a terminal melancholy. Although the singers may not have felt sad, the pain was magically transmitted to the viewer.
Needless to say, The Deep Blue Sea, based on a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, has its inevitable quotient of singalongs, and the same sad-happy atmosphere. One suspects Davies is one of those people who is only happy when he’s thoroughly miserable. The greater the misery, the more keenly felt those moments of redemption that follow the gloom.
In what was once called ‘the first reel’, we meet Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) as she puts her head into the oven and turns on the gas. It’s tempting to say: “It’s all downhill from there”. Hester survives, only to suffer more pain at the hands of her restless, fractious boyfriend, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot who has become fixated on the thrills and danger of the war. Although he is great one for celebrating victory with a few drinks, peace does not agree with Freddie.
Lurking in the background is Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), the high court judge that Hester abandoned to explore the joys of Bohemia. Much older than his wife, stuffy and upright, William is a good man who is still in love with his errant spouse; still willing to forgive and forget.
The obvious course would be for Hester to give up the unstable boyfriend and the shabby apartment, and resume the high society lifestyle. But if characters in films and plays acted sensibly, we would have very boring films and plays. The flashbacks to life with William are not encouraging, and Hester, we know, is a woman brim-full of passion. This conflict between duty and desire is one of Terence Rattigan’s great themes, and although the latter usually wins, it can be a hollow victory.
With The Deep Blue Sea we have a story – and a director – that allows scope for a talented actor. Rachel Weisz, who has a sensuality that is forever threatening to burst the bounds of respectability, is perfectly cast as Hester. She is passionate, but also cultured in a way Freddie will never be, as we find in a scene set in an art gallery. She actually has more in common with William, but cannot imagine returning to a lukewarm, presumably sexless marriage.
In the world of post-war, austerity Britain, Hester’s behaviour is scandalous, and this is one of the reasons the play enjoyed such popularity. She is a brave, self-reliant figure with no respect for the proprieties. She is also an emotional basket-case, but by the end of the film a new Hester has emerged.
Unlike David Cronenberg in A Dangerous Method, Davies is a director whose great strengths lie in his rapport with actors and his feeling for music. Aside from the pub songs, he makes telling use of Samuel Barber’s powerful Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, even though it may seem incongruous to employ the work of an American composer for a film about life in 1950s Britain.
Deep Blue Sea is a film about emotional choices that suggests the heart has the power to overturn the careful calculations of the head. Almost everyone has made such bad but inevitable choices, and many people are serial offenders. The choices may not be between judges and RAF pilots, or even between wealth and poverty, but don’t’ be surprised if you experience a twinge of déjà vu in this detail-perfect melodrama of the fifties.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 12, 2012
The Deep Blue Sea, UK, Rated M, 98 minutes