“Hester, what have they done to you?”
2011 marked the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan and theatres across the country have paid their tribute to this oft-neglected playwright with a range of productions which have arguably pulled him back into fashion. London saw Flare Path and Cause Célèbre amongst others, Chichester devoted much of their season to his work, commissioning two new dramatic responses to his plays as well as South Downs (alongside The Browning Version) and Rattigan’s Nijinsky. But perhaps one of his greatest works is The Deep Blue Sea, of which I have seen two productions this year – one in Leeds with Maxine Peake and the other with Amanda Root in Chichester. And it is this play that has received the silver screen treatment in a film version by Terence Davies.
Davies has definitely taken the adage quality over quantity to heart – having produced just 4 dramatic feature films in a career that began in the mid-70s – but one of those is the Gillian Anderson starring The House of Mirth which is one of my all-time favourite films so I was intrigued to see what he had made of this story, of which I have grown uncommonly fond. Too fond as it turned out, because I was completely unable to judge the film as its own artistic entity and found myself constantly referring back to how it was differing from the play.
The Deep Blue Sea is about Hester, the wife of Sir William Collyer a High Court judge, who has abandoned her comfortable but passion-free life for a heady affair with Freddie, a tempestuous RAF pilot. The bulk of the film (and the entirety of the play) is set over one day, which begins with her attempting suicide and ends with her forced into a crucial dilemma as she is forced to question whether she could return to a stable life without passion or continue to live according to her feelings, but in danger of never having them fully reciprocated. Davies has taken the opportunity offered by film to flesh out the story more, with flashbacks and additional scenes giving greater colour to his interpretation, whilst trimming others that he considers to be not as necessary – it is her neighbours in her new boarding house that suffer most here.
And thus my problems began. It was hard to see the flashbacks as particularly necessary, seeing Hester’s mother-in-law in monstrous action or the lack of passion in the Collyers’ marriage over-egged the message a bit and the new scenes like the visit to a vicar (a criminally under-used Oliver Ford Davies) or the disastrous trip to an art gallery, just pulled focus away from the complex intensity of Hester’s journey over this torturous day and aiming for an easier manipulation of our sympathies for her. This does Rachel Weisz a bit of a disservice as her performance here as Hester is excellent, full of quiet repressed emotion and beautifully subtle.
Simon Russell Beale is heartbreaking as the cuckolded husband and the desperation to have his wife back that shines through only in his eyes is almost unbearable. But there’s little sense of believable chemistry between them, that they were ever really husband and wife, which is needed to really heighten the tragedy of the piece. And Tim Hiddleston is superb as the mentally scarred Freddie, unable to deal with the depth of Hester’s emotion for him and so almost bitter in his frustrated demeanour that sees him in the pub more often than not. But Freddie is meant to be considerably younger and so there’s little sense of the age gap – Weisz is just too youthfully beautiful here – that enhances the social scandal of her infidelity.
I do wish I had been able to see this free from any preconceptions about the play though, for there are some glorious moments of cinematography in here. The opening wordless quarter-of-an-hour, set to Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is elegantly beautiful; and music is used again to great effect in the pub singalongs which effortlessly show the sense of community that Hester feels so estranged from. (I didn’t like the Blitz flashback singalong to Molly Malone one little bit though); and the whole film looks perfect, gloomy and tired, a whole country only slowly getting itself back on its feet after the horrors of war. Altogether, I just didn’t really agree with Davies’ decisions to play with Rattigan’s structure and what I wanted was just a filmed version of the play, which I suppose ultimately defeats the point of the object and reveals a lot about me in that this was the first film I decided to go and see at the cinema for months.