It was a great pleasure to watch this adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. But I do worry about the film’s general reception. Terence Davies is a unique and highly gifted filmmaker but his work doesn’t easily fit contemporary categories of taste. When I looked at IMDB after the screening there were just three comments, two bemused or bewildered and one rather nasty and stupid. Bemusement is not surprising since this is a very personal work by a filmmaker who has made only seven features in nearly 30 years. Four of those features focus on the director’s own memories of childhood as a working-class gay Catholic boy in 1940s/50s Liverpool. The other three are adaptations realised via an obsession with the great musicals and melodramas of Hollywood in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Rattigan was also a gay man in the 1950s – but with a background of public school Protestantism and the upper middle-class. The Deep Blue Sea was first performed as a stage play in 1952 with Peggy Ashcroft and Kenneth More and was then adapted for a film by Anatole Litvak in 1955 (in CinemaScope and 4-track stereo) with More repeating his role and Vivienne Leigh as Hester, the principal character. I don’t recall having seen the play (which was also adapted for television) so the film narrative was fresh for me. I assumed that the nonlinear narrative was a Davies invention but it seems to have been in the original. The film begins (‘around 1950’) with a suicide attempt by Hester (Rachel Weisz). She is discovered ‘in time’ by the other residents of the house in which she shares a room with her lover, the ex-Battle of Britain pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). The main narrative then deals with the fall-out from the suicide bid which ensues with the return of Freddie and a visit from Hester’s estranged husband William (‘Bill’), a senior high court judge – the Solicitor-General (second highest legal position in England) Edward Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Flashbacks reveal some aspects of Hester’s marriage and affair.
My companion at the screening wondered what attracted Davies to the project and I replied that I thought it was simply the chance to have access to a budget which would enable him to return to the style of his earlier films. Apart from his documentary memoir Of Time and the City (2008), made on a micro-budget, Davies had not made a ‘fiction feature’ since The House of Mirth (2000). With even the limited budget offered by Film 4 and the other partners he was able to explore his cinematic passions – tableau compositions moving into slow tracking shots, richly detailed sets with a focus on lighting and colour, marvellous use of sound, including both popular and classical music and, at the centre, a suffering but intensely vital woman. In other words, Terence Davies makes melodramas. He loves melodramas and so do we.
In the 42 page Pressbook downloadable from the UK distributor Artificial Eye, we learn about the whole process of making the film and which other films Davies studied. (There is also a very detailed long synopsis, quite useful for remembering bits of the film.) Davies promoted the film through a wide range of interviews which are easily found on various blogs and websites. The editor of Sight and Sound, Nick James, worked on the film (organising some of the community singing – his partner Kate Ogborn is one of the film’s producers). Not surprisingly there is an array of writing about the film in Sight and Sound December 2011, including a review by Jonathan Romney. Since all of this material is easily available and you can read it for yourself, I’ll limit myself to comments on what Davies tells us and how the film works for me.
Terence Davies tells us several times that contemporary British ‘heritage cinema’ gets the 1950s wrong and that since he lived through the era he knows not only how it looked but how it felt. He was ‘around 5’ at the time when his film is set. What he remembers, I suggest, is aspects of working-class life in Liverpool, refracted through the stories of his sisters and the other women in his family, plus the imagery of the ‘woman’s picture’ genre, examples of which he was taken to see. My memories of the later 1950s are rather different even though I lived not that far from Terence Davies (but in a different milieu). I don’t make this observation to suggest that Davies is ‘wrong’ or that his critique of certain contemporary British films is misguided. But it’s important to remember that Davies is not interested in realism as such, but in emotional truths expressed cinematically. I think he is right to suggest that Rattigan knew little about London life in the early 1950s outside of his own upper middle-class world (although it would be odd if a gay man in the early 1950s did not have unsettling encounters outside his own circle). Much is made in the discussion of the film’s mise en scène about how Hester’s ‘seedy bedsit’ is more authentic than the designs for the earlier stage productions and adaptations. To me it still looks like quite a comfortable set of rooms (see the stills above). Interestingly, the DP on the film, Florian Hoffmeister said that he began his research looking at The L-Shaped Room (1962), Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of a Lynne Reid Banks novel shot by Douglas Slocombe. But he was then influenced by a screening of Letter From an Unknown Woman (US 1948), the Max Ophüls romantic melodrama shot by Franz Planer, that Davies asked to be shown to cast and crew. Here is a clip featuring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan.
The Ophüls film is one of the greatest romantic melodramas ever made and I’m sure someone who has studied Davies in more depth could tell us exactly what he has taken from the master of the tracking shot. More on Ophüls in a moment, but I think it is worth noting the range of British films that cover the period of the late 1940s/early 1950s, some of which Davies might have consciously referenced and others that he might not know (given that his focus is usually Hollywood). The Deep Blue Sea begins with an exterior shot which reminded me of the opening to London Belongs to Me (Sidney Gilliat, 1948) about a boarding house in South London in 1939. I was also reminded of two Michael Powell films, The Small Back Room (1949) set during the war and featuring dingy rooms and smoky pubs and Peeping Tom (1959) with its studio sets of Soho streets and alleys. Most of The Deep Blue Sea (as might be expected in an adaptation from a stage play) takes place either in Hester’s rooms, on the street outside or in the pub. The strangest sequence in the film sees Hester move seamlessly from room to dark alley and into the pub where the communal singing is underway – immediately taking us back to the Liverpool of Davies’s earlier Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Davies himself several times refers to Brief Encounter (1945) which was the inspiration for the Underground scene in which Hester remembers sheltering from the Blitz and hearing someone singing ‘Molly Malone’. (Only Terence Davies could combine Molly Malone with songs by Jo Stafford and Eddie Fisher in order to comment on the theme of his film.)
Distant Voices Still Lives:
Jo Stafford on the soundtrack of The Deep Blue Sea:
The most recent trailer for Brief Encounter (1945):
I’m not sure about Brief Encounter. In some ways it seems to me that Hester is a much stronger character than Laura, the character played by Celia Johnson. Brief Encounter now seems a delicate film about repressed desire whereas Hester is a woman who has bravely, recklessly (?) acted on her desire. I think that the best way to approach Hester as a character is to forget about Rattigan altogether. (I’m happy to acknowledge him as an important playwright of his period and as an innovator who was perhaps wrongly ignored from the 1960s until the present revival.) Davies, whether or not he is interested in the sociology of British Cinema, does foreground the question of the possibilities of fulfilled life for a woman in the UK ‘around 1950’. He says that what Hester did in leaving Bill and living with Freddie was deeply shocking in that period and that we have to take this on board in judging his film. What is at issue here is precisely the representation of women in British Cinema in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Because it is refracted by the lens of Hollywood mostly, the view Davies has doesn’t seem to explore the breadth of female characters in British Cinema or the ways in which restrictions were imposed by austerity and the struggles to transform the class basis of British society. Having said that he does recognise that equivalents to his Hollywood ‘strong women’ were present in British Cinema. He refers to Googie Withers seen here in Ealing’s It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) in which she plays a married woman sheltering her ex-lover, a criminal on the run played by her ‘real life’ husband John McCallum. This clip also shows a late 1940s London street scene.
I think some of my unease can be explained by considering the casting decisions on the film. Rachel Weisz I thought was wonderful. She appears not to act at all, simply embodying the role like a classical Hollywood star. Simon Russell Beale is also excellent but I sensed him acting and seemed to notice specific things that he did to convey his inner feelings as Bill. In other words there was a difference in approach. Tom Hiddleston seemed to me to be mis-cast. He’s a fine young actor but I couldn’t believe in him in the role. I presume that this is an issue about the Rattigan play. Hiddleston is too young to be a 30 year-old ex-RAF pilot who I would expect to be either seedy/shifty or blown out after 10 years of recovering from 1940. I couldn’t help thinking of David Farrar as the ex-RAF villain who seduces Jean Simmons in Ealing’s Cage of Gold (dir. Basil Dearden, 1950).
I can’t think of a modern actor who could convey what David Farrar manages here – his best roles were in Powell and Pressburger melodramas. The support cast in The Deep Blue Sea are all very good and it’s a pity we don’t see more of them.
I want to end with a reference that struck me during the film and which became more interesting when I began to research it. The image at the top of this posting shows Hester reflected back to herself in the window. You’ll see something similar in the Brief Encounter trail above (which may have prompted Davies to use it), but it made me think of Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944). The sequence comes part through this clip from the opening of the film:
Now, I can see that the image is actually rather different, and so is the film, but Joan Bennett herself is interesting as the kind of female star that Hollywood didn’t really know how to handle. Some of her best roles were in the 1940s for Lang and indeed for Max Ophüls. Here is a clip from The Reckless Moment, the 1949 film noir in which she is a mother trying to hide the evidence of a murder (Tilda Swinton played the role in the 2001 remake, titled The Deep End). Check the wonderful tracking shot at the start of the clip:
I seem to have drifted quite a way from The Deep Blue Sea, but I’m trying to suggest that Terence Davies has made a highly cinematic film that encourages an exploration of the films and performances that have influenced him and in turn us, his audience. The Deep Blue Sea is brilliant but slightly off kilter as it adapts a British story partly using the vision of 1940s Hollywood filmmakers – albeit often with European aesthetic roots. I want to watch it again and think about it some more.