How pleasing to have Terence Davies back making films again after his period in the cinematic wilderness. Following 2008’s Of Time and the City, his semi-autobiographical, Liverpool-focused documentary, The Deep Blue Sea is Davies’ first narrative feature for 11 years. It’s an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play of the same name (fairly loose, I am told – I haven’t read or seen it myself), which debuted in 1952.
Davies’ film begins “around 1950” in London, to a dialogue-free introduction in which Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) attempts to kill herself. As the wife of a judge, she understands only too well that attempted suicide is illegal. As she recovers, her deep puffs of cigarette smoke transport us to flashbacks, where her extra-marital relationship with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) is examined. We also meet her husband William (stage veteran Simon Russell Beale), who refuses to grant Hester a divorce when he finds out about her infidelity. As things progress, the narrative pleasantly folds in and out of itself in unhurried, uncomplicated fashion.
From time to time, the film feels like a stage production which has been shoehorned rather ill-fittingly into the camera frame. The dialogue is very theatrical at times and doesn’t always work in front of the camera, but for the most part it does work, and once you get a handle on the pacing, on the style, then the charm of Davies’ film can come through. The pace is considered but always dramatically active, meaning that it never feels slow, even when perhaps it is. It is restrained but gripping, which is why the more melodramatic scenes stand out as the ones which could’ve benefitted from having their theatricality tamed.
It feels a little austere at times, but Davies tempers this feeling with soft focus and lovely framing. He also respects the characters in the piece and doesn’t make a villain of anybody. Hester is the protagonist but is not a heroine in the traditional sense – she is as much a fallible person as the two men competing for her love. Wiesz and Hiddleston do a lovely job of conveying both love and distance, only let down by the script on rare occasions; more often than not when they are required to start shouting. Beale gives a dignified, unshowy performance as William, completing a convincing trio, and there are good supporting turns, too, particularly from Ann Mitchell as Mrs. Elton, Freddie’s landlady.
Davies makes great use of sound in the film; a series of music-based set pieces, in particular, give a wonderfully cinematic feel. From a tracking shot in a beautifully introduced wartime flashback to a heartbreaking evocation of class boundaries in a local pub (where Hester tries forlornly to join in singing with the crowd), the sound design and choice is excellent. The film culminates in a reprise of the opening movement which makes for an affecting and dramatically satisfying conclusion.
The Deep Blue Sea is a film which knows what it want s to be – it’s a stylish, self-contained, evocative drama with strong lead performances that overcomes the odd dip here and there to provide a distinct and satisfying experience.