Terence Davies is not a name widely known amongst the general public. His films have been few and far between, deeply personal and never all that cheerful. It's hard to imagine that Davies will find a larger audience with his latest work, an adaptation of an old Terence Rattigan play that at least one critic has labelled dated and hardly worth the effort. Yet I found The Deep Blue Sea to be quite the most beautiful and moving work of art I've seen all year.
Davies does more than confirm his reputation as arch stylist, he suggests he's the heir apparent to the mantle of Hitchcock, Powell and Lean. I can't think of a finer post-war English director.
Rattigan's plot is the stuff of melodrama. The story of Hester Collyer, a woman from a solid middle class religious background who marries a High Court judge only to have her head turned by a smooth talking former RAF pilot, is one that pits security against passion. The scenario isn't too far away from the ultimate English weepie, Brief Encounter, especially given an opening in which the female protagonist attempts suicide. It also reminded me of another, lesser David Lean film: The Passionate Friends, another love triangle in which an elder man is cuckolded by his wife's true love.
Yet Rattigan's work cuts a lot deeper than that of either Noel Coward or HG Wells and Davies has the skill to get to its emotional core. There have be plenty of dramas that have examined English repression, most them unconsciously complicit with it. Davies' film confronts repression, love and sexuality head on, engendering great sympathy for its heroine even as her stubborn, irrational behaviour causes distress to herself and all around her. This is no fairy tale romance where the husband is abusive and the lover a knight in shining amour. Quite the opposite: the judge is warm and supportive if a little staid and the pilot a selfish, emotional juvenile sacred by the feelings he's awoken in the woman and looking to get out of the relationship as soon as possible.
Davies draws naturalistic, note perfect performances from a cast that, notwithstanding lead Rachel Weisz, is short on stars or recognizable faces. Weisz has never been better, giving a sense of a woman on the very edge of sanity but one with sufficient self awareness to pull herself back from the brink.
For all the messy realism of Hester's feelings, the film itself is anything but a documentary rendering of post-war life. Davies is a visual poet with a love of juxtaposing squalid imagery with classical music. He's got a sentimental, clearly personal attachment to that most popular form of cultural expression: mass singing in pubs. The lighting, the colour and the cinematography are at times breathtaking, with sweeping camera movements and crane shots worthy of Max Ophuls or Sergio Leone. One extended sequence in which Hester's despairing impulse to throw herself under a train gives way to a memory of sheltering in the underground during the Blitz is clearly the work of a cinematic master.
At the risk of sounding prurient, the only thing The Deep Blue Sea lacks is a decent - or rather indecent - sex scene. Given that it is the physical that is the basis of Hester's obsession, Davies does rather short change his audience with an all too brief demonstration of carnality. That aside, the adaptation is as perfect as you could want. The director does not merely 'open up' the play, he makes it his own.
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