No, not that one. This one.
Went to see The Deep Blue Sea for the second time at the weekend. Always the mark of a special film. Adapted and directed by the near-sanctified Terrence Davies, I saw it during the London Film Festival, whose closing gala it formed in October. I was dying to see it again. Based on a Terrence Rattigan play I’d never heard of, let alone seen (but then again, Davies wasn’t familiar with it either before being commissioned to make something for Rattigan’s centenary, and only knew the 1955 film starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More), I came to it with no foreknowledge. There’s a review on the IMdb by a devotee of the play and the theatre who despises it for the liberties Davies has taken with the text. Not only did I not notice any of these, I don’t see a problem with adapting a theatrical work for the screen per se; the two are entirely different mediums.
In the screen version, which opens with a wordless, nine-minute montage against Samuel Barber’s fiercely and torridly melodramatic Concerto For Violin and Orchestra that blows your socks off, Davies by and large sticks to the claustrophobic Ladbroke Grove boarding house of the play and only “opens out” in flashbacks. His version is cinematic in both the sense of the fractured narrative and in the pure technical achievement of he and his cinematographer Florien Hoffmeister in recreating not only the period look of colourless postwar England but the hazy, soft-focus ambience of ill-lit rooms and streets. It’s very cleverly done, with characters in a state of near-darkness even during daylight. You find you are squinting at the screen, which might not be very good for your eyesight, but it’s good for your absorption into the milieu of the era (“around 1950,” according to the caption, which, we must remember, was “around” seven years before the end of rationing in this country).
Hester, the wife of Simon Russell Beale’s starchy but decent judge who leaves him for strutting but shallow RAF pilot Tom Hiddleston (so good this year in Archipelago), seems to be the role of a lifetime for Rachel Weisz, who captures the character’s sadness, her rebellious streak and her lust for life. I have no idea how Vivien Leigh played her – although I’d like to see Anatole Litvak’s film now – or how she is played onstage. In this, I was able to appreciate the story and the performances on their own merits. This is a gorgeous, romantic film; small and intimate (a chamber piece, in fact) but one that speaks loudly of the great shifts in society that occurred after the war had united us and then left us with a lot of bombed-out streets and even more nagging questions about where we all fitted back in.
Hester and Freddie’s landlady, Mrs Elton, played brilliantly on the right side of caricature by Anne Mitchell, says plenty about about the time with her wish to uphold decency in her house, another of whose tenants seems to be a doctor who was struck off for some unmentioned reason, and, like the unfaithful “Lady” Hester, is living in some kind of sin. Mrs Elton’s own husband is clearly dying, but the love she shows to him – the kind that meant even bad marriages were not abandoned as the more modern Hester has abandoned hers – gives The Deep Blue Sea one of its most moving moments. (Was it in the play? I don’t know. I’ve read that the excruciating flashbacks to Hester staying at her mother-in-law’s were added in by Davies. These may not have been Rattigan’s, but they help to round out the repressed, near-Victorian marriage she felt trapped in, so bring them on.)
I met and interviewed Terrence Davies once, on Radio 4, and felt privileged to be in the presence of the filmmaker behind Distant Voices, Still Lives. He’s like our Terrence Malick (why is everybody called Terrence?) – he doesn’t make that many films, but those that he does make form an identifiable body of work. There is communal singing in The Deep Blue Sea which I’ll go out on a limb and say must have been added in by Davies, who longs for those days before jukeboxes and video screens. He was a highly irascible and passionate man in interview (we were discussing the state of British film, if I remember correctly), and if you think his fictions are autobiographical – and they are, even this one – then seek out Of Time And The City, his elegaic personal journey through the history of his native Liverpool. It’s captivating. And funny. And irascible. If he likes the past so much, why doesn’t he go and live there? Oh yes, he does.
At the Saturday afternoon screening at the Curzon, I was among only two people in the pleasingly full cinema with dark hair. Though this shouldn’t just be one for the oldies, it’s good to know that some films are being made for people over 50 who might not want guts and violence every time they go to the pictures. (Two white-haired people left after about 15 minutes, nine of which comprised that stirring Barber prologue; I wonder what they thought they were going to get?)