Review: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Director: Terence Davies

****

Terence Davies, as a director, is devoted to classic filmmaking techniques, even though he uses them to tell very affecting stories that are surprisingly resonant. The Deep Blue Sea opens on the façade of a house in London in 1950. The camera cranes up slowly and elegantly to a first floor window where Hester (Rachel Weisz) stands. She draws the curtains, and then proceeds to open the gas on the fireplace and attempt suicide. A classy sweep gives way to a bitter pill; suicide isn’t a modern phenomenon, and contrasting the unconscious Hester to the creak of the floors and flowery wallpaper may jar with some. Mr. Davies, you have our attention.

Davies’ previous works, whether the bittersweet Distant Voices, Still Lives or the love-letter documentary Of Time And The City, are unashamedly bathed in nostalgia, both in their technique and their setting. Davies was only five in 1950, and he found himself growing up in a strange time in which Britain struggled to define itself. Still scarred by the war, Britain found itself torn between the crippling memories (and debts) of the past, and the enthusiasm of youth for the future. Such is the dilemma Hester faces. Her marriage to Sir William Colyer (Simon Russell Beale) is comfortable and affectionate, if lacking in excitement. The enthusiastic and charming air force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) is everything William is not: young and devil-may-care, if also hot-headed and temperamental. It’s very familiar territory, not least because Terence Rattigan’s source play has been filmed numerous times previously. However, Davies (both writer and director) and his cast know better than to let this well-written piece descend into déjà-vu. Everyone here is playing to their strengths. Weisz brings the appropriate mix of sensuality and muted elegance to Hester, which grows into a weighed-down sense of regret as events unfold. When we meet her first, she has already separated from William and moved into Freddie’s little flat. As events collude against her, Hester’s regret increases. Regret is the backbone of The Deep Blue Sea, and it’s painted all over Weisz’s pained expressions. Hiddleston flits from giddy to fiery temper with shocking ease and Beale underplays everything to the point where his speech veers on a comforting whisper. Very different men, but both with their advantages and their problems.

Cigarette smoke creates a nostalgic haze in every frame, as Davies’ attention to detail comes to the fore. Despite only a handful of locations, The Deep Blue Sea never feels artificial. Davies nimbly negotiates Rattigan’s prose from stage to screen, avoiding most every pitfall that could leave it feeling staged. Also in evidence is Davies’ canny ear for a good tune; Barber’s ‘Andante’ from his Violin Concerto becomes a notable leitmotif. Like that particular piece of music, The Deep Blue Sea is full of heart, but is never overwhelming or bombastic. It’s a patient and measured bit of elegant filmmaking; it’s proof that passion need not be visceral or angry to make an impact.

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