Lets get the praise out the way first. I adore Terence Davies, the man and the filmmaker. In terms of recognition he’s one of Britain’s most deserving yet least acclaimed artists, except, it seems in highbrow arthouse circles. His masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives is still an all time personal favourite and his last great opus Of Time and the City is a brilliant and evocative expressionistic trip down memory lane, specifically his childhood memories of Liverpool. It's quite something to behold.
Even lesser and flawed works such as The Long Day Closes and The Neon Bible have so much to commend them as to make them at the very least watchable, interesting and occasionally fascinating.
So it’s with some mild heartbreak I have to confess I really struggled through much of The Deep Blue Sea. I was optimistic to begin with as the first twenty minutes are magnificently bold and typical of much of his work. I can't incidentally tell you how this compares with the original 1955 version starring Vivien Leigh as I haven't seen it and just in case you're wondering, let's not also confuse this with the rotten shark attack B movie Deep Blue Sea with no 'The' prefixing the title.
Set in post-war London the film opens with the attempted suicide of Hester Collyer, a youthful beauty who at first impression has everything going for her. An artful series of tracking shots, painterly compositions and flashbacks showing a passionate affair with a young man is drowned out by an operatic score provided by one of Samuel Barber’s great compositions.
I was in a state of cinematic ecstasy and then it quickly winds down and comes to a full stop for what seemed like an eternity until some brief bravura moments punctuated the last act and woke me up.
Terence Rattigan’s play from which this is adapted may well have been topical, even scandalous in its day. His characters struggle to break away from stiff upper lip decency and embrace reality rather than convention’s out of date morals. Suicide, female liberation, sexuality, drunken anger and uncompromising in your face honesty may well have been radical inserts for a play or a film back in 'ye olde times' but here it's stilted, overwrought and too obvious. What could be said in a glance or a simple camera move is instead a ten-minute dialogue exchange of the screamingly obvious, pure and needless exposition.
Davies gets round this in part by explicitly making the film in the style of an old-fashioned British romantic drama from the late 40’s, in particular, this is a reworking of David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Whether it was Rattigan’s or Davies intent, The Deep Blue Sea is a variation of that film along the lines of ‘what would have happened if Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard continued their scandalous affair with the husband being fully aware of it?’
As if to underline this Davies recreates Brief Encounter’s famous shot of Johnson almost throwing herself under a passing train, the light spilling from the carriages strobing her distraught face. The variation here is now its Rachel Weisz’s face in a London Underground station. Although this moment stirred my appreciation, it made me long to rewatch David Lean’s classic.
Rattigan’s play seems to be about all those moments in a relationship in which one is in a moral quandary, full of doubt and regret, in which the inevitable end of the affair is approaching and any effort to stave off a loveless lonely existence is doomed to fail. Yup, pretty bleak stuff.
Hester is torn between a decent older man, her husband, who can only provide friendship and spiritual nourishment and the handsome young cad Freddy who delivers passion and physical pleasure but is ultimately heading for a new life just as Trevor Howard’s illicit lover does in Brief Encounter. It also, at the end goes on to stress that there’s more to life than love and that yes, everyone else has their problems and manages the best they can. It felt preachy.
The bottom line is that The Deep Blue Sea is a piece of grim claustrophobic theatre, a wordy play with a few principal characters. The problem with the film is that for much of it, it stayed that way and I longed at times for the camera just to cut away to something else or move somewhere to some music rather than linger on an actor looking pensive for ten minutes at a stretch.
But having said that the film does lift in the final act when after much tedious exposition the characters suddenly explode into life in an alcohol fuelled argument or cross swords in the National Gallery as simmering tensions and resentments boil to the surface. These moments are principally performed by Tom Hiddleston as Freddy and he is the star of the piece acting everyone else off the screen.
There are also brief encounters with Davies favourite set pieces. A couple of loud drunken singalongs in a noisy lively working class pub brought me happy flashbacks of Distant Voices, Still Lives to mind and in another moment of song, civilians trying to keep their spirits up whilst sheltering from the blitz in a tube station raised the hairs on the back of my neck. For all its faults The Deep Blue Sea still contains many of Davies trademark gifts and as disappointing as I found the experience, it did still contain many flashes of brilliance that marks Davies as a filmmaker to keep the faith with.