The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale
Released in the UK on 25 November
It has been coming like Christmas - the rehabilitation of Terence Rattigan and the period with which we associate him: the 1940s and 1950s. I first noticed it in Ian McEwan's 2007 On Chesil Beach, with its surprising commitment to the "serious" 1950s - Philip Larkin was referenced to clinch the case - rather than the hedonistic 1960s. There have even been times over the past few years when I have wondered if we have not been absorbed in some rerun of that decade. To take some incommensurable examples, there has been Tony Blair's Anthony Eden moment over the Iraq War; the resurgence of a certain kind of popular Saturday-night television in Strictly Come Dancing; the successful staging of David Lean's Brief Encounter by Kneehigh, the "radical" theatre company; and the fashion for jumpers. Even the Fawcett Society called for protesters to dress in 1950s gear last Saturday to stage their concerns that hard-won advances for women are being eroded.
In contemporary, austerity Britain, riven with frustrated hopes and desires, where certain strands of popular culture such as The X Factor seem to license an incontinent emotionalism, and others allow irony to rule, the unironic Rattigan with his interrogation of how to live after emotional catastrophe, how to grin and bear it, may well seem like a man around whom we can rally. At least, some people may feel that way.
Terence Davies, the most independent of our independent film-makers, has often been drawn to the post-war period - to the wireless (The Long Day Closes), to the communal singsong (Distant Voices, Still Lives) and, above all, to the culture and values of welfare Britain (Of Time and the City) - so it came as no surprise when I heard that the Rattigan Trust had approached him to contribute to the centenary celebrations. Add to Davies' attachment to the period the fact that like the other Terence he is gay, that he is drawn to studies of women in a world of powerful men (think of his adaptation of Edith Wharton's fine The House of Mirth), and a film version by Terence Davies of a work by the earlier Terence seems like hand in glove.
His The Deep Blue Sea is less transcription or even adaptation than improvisation on what lies at the heart of the drama: how a woman can go on living after the passion a man has awakened in her (and which she will not betray) is unrequited, or rather requited in a way that gives her neither satisfaction nor peace. In terms of the language of cinema, this is a "woman's pic". At the heart of the play and film is a triangle: Hester, the wife of a kindly judge, played in the film by Rachel Weisz; her husband, played by Simon Russell Beale; and Freddie, Hester's lover, the former RAF pilot and burnt-out-case, played by Tom Hiddleston, with whom she understands passion, not least physical passion. The film cuts between the past and the present where Hester has tried to commit suicide, recognising that her relationship with Freddie, which to her is life, is something very different to him. The film is set in bedsit land in London in the early 1950s, slightly shabby but lit with intensity by Davies and his cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister.
Terence Davies fillets the play, jettisoning the neighbours and adding scenes such as the one between Hester and her mother-in-law, who counsels "guarded enthusiasm" rather than "passion". We even have a scene that seems not even true to the spirit never mind the letter of Rattigan: a shot down an Aldwych Tube platform during the war, to the song Molly Malone. The film begins with a crane shot that takes us from a bombed-out building (the shadow of the war is everywhere) to the window where Hester stands just before she tries to commit suicide. The succeeding eight minutes, shot to Samuel Barber's plangent violin concerto, offer a series of elliptical flashbacks in a prelude that makes me realise that preludes (see Lars Von Trier's recent Melancholia) are this year's measure of seriousness, as if Barber and, in Von Trier's case, Wagner show that the film-makers are more like makers of opera rather than makers of movies.
The film conjures up well a certain feel of post-war Britain and the performances are excellent, but the film does not convince me any more than the play about what holds Hester to Freddie. I am still largely in the dark. Much of the film is shot indoors, not least in Hester's flat, and it seems profoundly a film about private passions. But there are Davies' trademark moments, such as the Aldwych Tube moment, when he seems to be trying to connect Hester's endurance with that of the people of England (this is England, not Britain). It does not quite work, but it is for those moments that I waited: moments when Davies' attachment to everyday life and people shines through. This is nowhere more clear than at the end when the opening shot is reversed and the camera leaves the flat, with Hester at the window, an enigmatic smile on her face, to go down into the world of all of us. It's that democratic post-war impulse that Davies cherishes and we should cherish in him, even if it seems to leave Rattigan far behind.