September 15, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “The Deep Blue Sea”


If you were going to describe the films of Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth) in one word, that word would not be “dynamic.”  Or “kinetic.”  Or, well, “exciting.”  Davies directs stately tableaux, impressive and sometimes moving, but rooted in nostalgia and regret.

Which is why choosing him to direct THE DEEP BLUE SEA, based on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play (previously filmed in 1955 with Vivien Leigh), was somewhere between inspired and doomed.  Rattigan’s play is all post-war repression, unrequited love and misery; Davies’ film fully realizes those themes, and provides little else.
Deep Blue Sea tells of a romantic triangle where all three parties manage to be dismally unhappy.  When the story begins, Hester (Rachel Weisz) has left her stodgy, older husband William (Simon Russell Beale) for the younger and more dashing Freddie (Tom Hiddleston).  William truly loves Hester, but arouses no passion in her; Hester is obsessively in love with Freddie, but he has only superficial feelings for her.  Freddie, too, is depressed, because apart from the clinging Hester, he knows his life peaked as a WWII pilot, and now he drinks and treats her badly.  To give an idea of how depressing all this is, the play and movie begin with Hester’s failed suicide attempt because Freddie had forgotten her birthday the night before (and it doesn’t get any more fun after that).  
Davies makes the experience even grimmer than it has to be.  The film has been shot (by Florian Hoffmeister) in oppressive semi-darkness, which accurately reflects the mood of the characters (and probably also relates to the post-war rationing and hardship of the time) to a fault.  There is much lugubrious singing of old wartime songs, and the production design is pinched and despondent.  Deep Blue Sea has been compared by some to David Lean’s film of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, but while that, too, was a tribute to stiff-upper-lip emotion, it also had a swoony romanticism; Deep Blue Sea, taking place after the romance has already curdled, is just sad.
Weisz and Beale give very strong performances, even if there’s limited scope in the film’s interpretation of their characters–both make us feel the terrible emptiness of their lives and longing.  I don’t know if it’s possible in 2011 to give life to a bounder like Freddie, but Davies and Hiddleston don’t manage to find any depth in him, and the other characters fade into the brownish background.  
The Deep Blue Sea seems to be exactly the film its director intended, plumbing the depths of human woe and unhappiness.  Its agonized depiction of despair, however, make it an acquired taste.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."