REVIEW: Rachel Weisz Shines Through the Contemplative Dankness of The Deep Blue Sea
There are so few filmmakers willing to tackle the romantic melodrama these days that Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea is welcome just for its sheer novelty. An adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, the picture opens with an attempted suicide and ends with an uneasy kind of redemption. It’s a love story with a great deal of furious, elegant handwriting packed between the lines, an exploration of immutable class distinctions and emotional and sexual repression in postwar England. And Rachel Weisz, as a woman who risks everything for the love of the wrong man, carries the mood and subtext of the material safely tucked in her dressing-gown pocket – she’s vulnerable and self-motivated in all the right measures.
But there’s such a thing as having too much reverence for your material, and although Davies is an extraordinarily gifted and principled director, The Deep Blue Sea may suffer for that reverence. Weisz plays Hester Collyer, the wife of an esteemed judge, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale). Her life is clearly comfortable, though not altogether happy, which is made clear by a scene in which her mother-in-law (played by Barbara Jefford) excoriates her for even believing in the notion of passion. And when we first see her, she’s a person who no longer wishes to live, a limp, drained figure in a murky, crowded bedroom: That’s the drab flat she shares with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, of War Horse, not to mention that he also plays Loki in Thor and the upcoming Avengers), the shallow if occasionally charming former RAF pilot who drew her away from her husband like a magnet. The story of how and why Hester made the choices she did is told in flashback, but her present – a present that, in the days when it was a glimmering future, was supposed to bring her so much happiness – is a muted kind of hell. After her suicide attempt, Freddie, deciding she’s too much of an emotional mess (and blaming her for it), decides to leave her. Hester is seized with a desperation to get him back.
Davies captures the milieu of '50s Great Britain perfectly, as you’d expect from the director of Distant Voices, Still Lives – postwar England is his home turf, emotionally and physically, though his eyes and ears are also well-attuned when it comes to period details of eras before his own time. (His 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth, starring an almost painfully radiant Gillian Anderson, gets Edith Wharton in a piercingly direct way.) Here, with his DP Florian Hoffmeister, he captures the dank optimism of 1950s London, a place where no one seems to be happy but everyone is working so hard at being cheerful that the murky illusion is almost believable. There’s rubble on the street corners, remnants of all-too-recent bombings that pedestrians now pass by without a glance. Gathering places like pubs can be cozy or oppressive, depending on the circumstances – their dark paneling and dim lighting can offer a place to hide from the world, though hiding from oneself is a different story.
That’s a lot of subterranean social and psychological meaning to capture with a camera, and Davies does so beautifully. Yet the pacing of The Deep Blue Sea is somehow at odds with both the movie’s imagery and its performances. The actors are all marvelous here: Beale’s character starts out as an unlikable lump and gradually emerges as a thoughtful man with deep and ardent feelings – if Weisz’s Hester is the emotional compass of the movie, William is the figure most sensitized to her wavering needle. Hiddleston has the right mix of boyish eagerness and brainless, spineless schoolboy cruelty – his scrubbed-clean aura is really a kind of menace. And Weisz is superb here, giving a performance that’s so dappled with shadows and light that you almost can’t tell which is which. Her Hester is a creature of great refinement, the finest that civilization has to offer – no wonder she’s scrabbling to get back to something raw and real, something that looks, feels and smells more like nature.
The thing she moves toward is, of course, the wrong thing. But this is a tragedy with a medium-happy ending, after all. And as beautifully made as The Deep Blue Sea is, it too has a passion problem, and not because Davies’ approach isn’t heartfelt enough. In fact, it may be too heartfelt. The picture moves like a contemplative, stately march, but the problem isn’t its slowness. It’s that Davies puts too much space between nearly every line – every dramatic work is constructed of dialogue and the breaths in between, but not every unspoken ellipses has to be swollen and pregnant with meaning. Davies may be, like his heroine, the man who loves too much, and the movie groans under the weight of all that lavish attention.
This is a different world, again, from Anatole Litvak’s 1955 version of the same material, starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More. That movie has a crispness, an almost rakish detachment, that makes its subnotes of repression and self-flagellation even more potent. It’s not a better movie, exactly – simply a reminder of what different directors and performers can bring to the same words, ideas and feelings. Comparing the two only reminds us that there’s no such thing as perfect adaptation. If there is, it lies in that elusive patch of green between the devil and the you-know-what.