The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)

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The lurking, hidden lust and mannered romantic tragedy of Brief Encounter are on one’s mind through the whole of Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, and not merely because it hails in some sense from the same period. With the benefit of its postwar framework and the subtleties of Davies’ yearning for a hazy past, this adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play (originally brought to the stage with Peggy Ashcroft in the lead) more or less approximates Encounter with a stronger grip of what grief feels like, in part as a result of its exclusion of an entire character from the source text. But the two stories share a surprising number of dutifully outdated moralisms that hinder them: this is a Hays code movie, lust and passion scary and dangerous, musty rationality the secret victor. Its focus is a woman who loves too much: Hester, wife of a successful judge, passionate and infatuated over an RAF pilot — an alcoholic in the play, a man in the film whose war traumas have left him unable to relate to her despite the eroticism and extremity of their relationship. The abandonment of her by both men after a suicide attempt leaves her high and dry, equally unhappy with the absence of affection she gets from her sexually charged, adventurous fling with young Freddy as she is with the paternal warmth of her time with her husband.

These arcs are more than a little familiar, even clichéd, so the film has to soar on performances alone, but one of its prime achievements is the way it conquers the banal truth of how there is something needed in both warring impulses of familial affection and sexual excitement — we know all that, but Davies expresses it with unusual depth and charm through his alternate employment of melodrama and naturalism. Despite taking place mostly in a single apartment on one day (a number of flashbacks bring us some explication), it feels expansive and sweeping and less than you’d expect like a filmed play — it actually is steeped in and evocative of a distant time, but emphasizes the human permanence of the emotions it gathers up and illuminates. Yet like David Lean’s film, this movie makes it all too easy somehow, as though its simplified, in a sense larger than life archetypes are too little even to hold Davies’ own interest. Whereas the play toyed with then-modern sexual values as antiquated denials of human nature, the film accepts them at face value, and just as bothersomely is even more tempted than Lean to say things instead of showing them, which only makes it seem more a relic.

The whole is less than its parts, then: Rachel Weisz is outstanding, even heartbreaking, as Hester, and she believably embodies a portrait of romantic and sexual grief that’s one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a film, playing with aching precision the sense of hopelessness and loss and amplified memory that become so haunting so quickly when one is left alone. Her work here is harrowing… but it would be more so if we were given more direct evidence of what it is she’s lamenting. Analyses of the movie play heavily upon how Hester was awakened sexually by Freddy, but this is only intermittently suggested; instead, she seems to share the theatrical impression of a woman cast off and misunderstood simply for being too much in love, and a massive and all-consuming love at that. It’s an incomplete picture — we never witness the extremity of this love in progress. All we see is really the sad aftermath, which can offer none of Brief Encounter‘s hollow if sincere redemption, one reason we miss here the play’s drawing of parallels between romantic oppression and the persecution of homosexuality. But if vague feelings can make the construction of a film, this one is certainly hard-hitting, with its burning melancholy still simmering days, weeks later.

The emotions are most vividly burned into us by a series of dreamlike flourishes and flashbacks, which are invariably glorious and easily the best parts of the film. The swirling, lyrical opening sequences of cross-cut suicide and sensuality are a radical choice you’d scarcely expect from Davies. More characteristic but all the more shattering is a Mrs. Miniver-esque flashback, dancing on the impact of memory on one’s life, that comes when a wandering through the Tube in 1950 sends Hester hurtling back to ten years earlier, seeking refuge from the Blitz with hundreds of united-in-fear Londoners and her husband, whose jacket she quietly adjusts, all singing the sentimental “Molly Malone” in the terrible darkness and fear. Not merely the key moment of the picture that defines so beautifully the affectionate nature of this finally destructive relationship, it’s one of the best scenes in any recent film that I’ve seen, and the mere wisp of memory of its stark, strangely real beauty can choke you up.

Part of the reason the moment the pan across that throng of people lands on the married couple is so expressive and haunting is the remarkable weight and sad dignity in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Sir William Collyer, Hester’s estranged husband, possibly the best of the picture. He’s no saint; indeed, you can sense just why living with him became so stifling, but you can also sense the truth and longing in his love for Hester, just how lost he becomes by losing her, and how something of their connection remains even after their marriage is essentially over. It has a grounded sadness, an emotional fearlessness, and a sense of realist, philosophical resignation not unlike the relevant Beatrice Straight sequence in Network. That Beale is able to get such naked anger, resentment, desperation, acceptance on film is a testament to his decades of accomplishment as one of the UK’s most renowned stage actors — his eyes are so expressive that they seem to gaze into you, off the camera and into an honest cinematic oblivion.

His presence, though, and Weisz’s nearly equal brilliance only point up the inadequacy of the third lead, Tom Hiddleston; he’s a non-starter both in terms of his performance and the underwritten (in Davies’ adaptation, at least) character itself. The same problem existed in Brief Encounter with Trevor Howard: he seems incapable of inspiring the sort of devotion and depression depicted, and no pains are taken to show rather than tell us why he does so. To be fair, there are some intricacies he explores himself and much of the blame goes back to the screenplay; the other two actors are simply better at finding the emotional core that he cannot. And it’s a narrative pet peeve of mine when people react to a trait in a character that we only witness after they do so. He’s a pleasant attractive guy but only toward the finale, when genuine tears well up in him as Weisz tries in vain to keep him in her life, do we see any of the dimension in him that might justify the very narrative of the picture. He’s given less to do than Beale and Weisz, and his supposed Best Years of Our Lives arc — the returning vet who finds day-to-day life trite now — is unsuccessfully implied; we are carefully shown that he’s consumed with the war, but he’s so cheery about it that it never appears to be traumatic and thus does little to sell his behavior toward Hester. The film’s structure (again, not the play’s) almost seems to imply that he is too shallow and simple for her (but that she’s just immensely attracted to him), not the other way around. Perhaps Davies should have tried his hand at Tennessee Williams instead? Weisz would make a spectacular Blanche.

Because the actual story points are mannered, odd, often even silly, and the dialogue frequently emphasizes things that we’ve already detected, what counts is the visual detail, the ache in the performances, the weight of things unsaid in a given moment. The production design and period detail are without fault, the film’s visually sumptuous despite its claustrophobia, and let’s not discount how refreshing it is to see a film driven so much on genuine human emotion. But by the end, I couldn’t help echoing something the Weisz character says: that tragedy is too strong a word for all this business, and I say that as someone who relates all too well to some of the depth of yearning and loss she suffers here. But yearning and loss define her character to the exclusion of all else, even desire in the end, and that makes this seem, again, a time capsule from someplace far off. It still moved me — it will probably move you too.

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