To paraphrase a thought put forth by film critic Richard Schickel and recently utilized by Neal Gabler, Hollywood knows how to make only two types of movies - Oscar movies, and movies for teenagers. Generally speaking, that's true. Thankfully, however, the same isn't generally true about Great Britain. But if it were, Terence Davies staid adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play THE DEEP BLUE SEA would certainly belong to the Oscar-esque variety. The film is categorically righteous with high culture in some of the best ways - brilliant performances, historically attuned (and post-war at that), intimate, and as British as the day is long.
But perhaps the single biggest strength of THE DEEP BLUE SEA is the deep dark blackness of the visuals. Florian Hoffmeister's cinematography goes beyond bold, as the GODFATHER era work of Gordon Willis is often evoked within the inky darkness and living silhouettes that so often occupy the screen. To utilize some strictly mechanical film notions, if one was to hold the actual lab-wrought celluloid to the light, it's negative space made real, the transparent given depth.
This deceptive emptiness is reflective of the fragile and emotional state of Hester Collyer, the story's central character as portrayed by Rachel Weisz. Hester is a mistreated wreck, the kind of character that populated the women's pictures made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She's left her emotionally remote older man of a husband (and a judge, played by Simon Russell Beale) to be with a high-flying emotionally charged young man (an RAF WWII veteran) who proves too self-absorbed for her needs (Tom Hiddleston). So, in this flashback-filled single-day story, she opts to commit suicide when he's not home. When that is botched, she's left to deal with the fallout of it all. That's the beginning of the movie. By the end of the day, everything and nothing may or may have changed.
It's said that Davies has stripped Rattigan's respected source material of much content though not meaning or gravity. The film runs a merciful ninety-eight minutes, which I say because the truth is that despite THE DEEP BLUE SEA'S many cinematic virtues, it ultimately fell short of engaging me at the all-important gut level. Similar to my experience with another recent lofty British adaptation, Tomas Alfredson's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, it has everything going for it except for that key absorptive quality. And while the complex TINKER TAILER left me disengaged on virtually all levels, THE DEEP BLUE SEA is simply, perhaps appropriately, remote like Hester's judge husband. The vibe is a catch-22 - On one hand the hardened emotional atmosphere of post-war England is definitely felt. But on the other hand, we're left with very few handles to hang onto. I'm not demanding that Davies' film be an easy one, or even altogether relatable, but merely a wee bit more open.
This version of Rattigan's story may not have affected me as perhaps it has affected many others during its overseas theatrical run, but Davies' choice of on-screen talent as well as his intensely stirring visuals are impossible to look away from. Likewise, his use of sound is subtly beyond that of the ordinary. A group singing gives way to a recorded source playback of the same song. During a long somber flashback of the blitz, a freshly shell-shocked horde of civilians sing the evocative "Molly Malone". A "real" moment, no, but it is a real filmic one. With this, as competent as it is, being Davies' first narrative feature since 2000's THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, I suppose a good deal of the austereness can be forgiven. And, despite my complaints, I nevertheless claim that the performances are solid, all around. As long as he keeps casting shadows so compelling as this film demonstrates, may the sun never set on the British film industry.
- Jim Tudor
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