Monday, April 30, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea: Reduced Rattigan

Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea

Among the various revivals staged to pay tribute to the English playwright Terence Rattigan around his 2011 centenary, possibly the most unwelcome is his countryman Terence Davies’ film of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. Davies is a pictorialist, not a dramatist; the movies that made his reputation, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992, were art-house chotchkes, with images that looked too much like tableaux and characters he hadn’t bothered to fill in. You could see the influence of the Brechtian-Freudian writer Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective), especially in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which contained a number of pub sing-alongs, but he didn’t move through his ideas to any sort of life underneath. Davies is the filmmaker equivalent of the Robin Bailey character in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can, who collects pop mementos that, lovingly preserved in an airless setting, removed from any context that might have given them meaning, have become a kind of living dead.

Davies moved on to adaptations with his 2000 version of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the tragic heroine, Lily Bart, gave that movie a raison d’ĂȘtre. But except for her and a few of the supporting players (especially Eleanor Bron and Elizabeth McGovern) it had no more life in it than his previous efforts. You watched the actors parading around in impeccable costumes against impeccable sets, and you didn't believe who they said they were or that they represented the society Wharton wrote about. Most of the actors seemed miscast, and implausible in an early twentieth-century setting, and since Davies encouraged them to read their dialogue with a mannered crispness, you got the sense that he didn't want us to believe them in period. The movie came across as a semi-post-modern take on the novel – which really deserved better. (And it had already received it, in a 1981 television edition starring Geraldine Chaplin.)

Kenneth More and Vivien Leigh in Anatole Litvak's 1955 film
The Deep Blue Sea is considerably worse, especially for anyone who might know Rattigan’s original or the modest, intelligent 1955 movie version directed by Anatole Litvak. The play, which was written for the great Peggy Ashcroft, is about Hester Collyer, a middle-aged woman who has left her husband, a judge, for a man younger than she by a decade or more, a now unemployed test pilot who is in every way her inferior – not just in class and education but in depth and complexity. After ten months of living with him in a middle-class flat and feeling emotionally neglected – and acutely conscious of his inability to love her with the fervor she feels for him – she bungles an attempt at suicide, arousing the concern of the other inhabitants of the flat, one of whom discovers who her husband is and telephones him. In the course of the day during which the play unfolds (Rattigan preserves the classical unities of time, place and action), Hester turns down her husband’s offer to take her back and resists but ultimately gives in to her lover’s decision to end their relationship. Rattigan’s layered comprehension of the delicacy of human interaction (both the husband, Bill, and the lover, Freddie, are drawn with compassion and tact) and his theatrical savvy are both clearly in evidence in the Litvak movie, which adds a couple of trim, effective flashbacks to the beginning of Hester and Freddie’s romance. But if you’re lucky enough to have seen the picture – it isn’t on DVD and it rarely shows up on television – then what you’re likely to remember most vividly is Vivien Leigh’s performance as Hester, whose anguish has wearied her but not blunted the edge of her feelings for Freddie (Kenneth More, recreating the role he played in the West End). Blythe Danner was equally remarkable in a revival at the Roundabout Theatre in 1998 (with Edward Herrmann as Bill): she gave Hester’s passion for Freddie a startling sexual explicitness.

As Hester in the Davies film, Rachel Weisz isn’t bad, considering that she’s too young for the part so levels of meaning in the character simply get erased, and considering that she, along with the rest of the actors, is directed to take Rattigan’s drawing-room-drama dialogue so slowly that you end up growing tired of her. The text isn’t high comedy, but it needs to be played at pretty nearly the same tempo; Davies, unlike Rattigan, has no idea how to recreate conversational rhythms. The movie isn’t inordinately long but it seems to go on for an eternity, and nothing that Davies does with it, either as director or as screenwriter, makes any sense. Hester’s reminiscences of her life with her husband are rendered in a series of honeyed, soft-focus images, as if Davies couldn’t tell the difference between moviemaking and scrapbooking, and the movie is so badly cut up that it often feels like an extended trailer for some swoony romantic melodrama – Brief Encounter, maybe, but with sex. Not that the sex helps, since Davies shoots it from the air, moving his camera with pointed curiosity so that the sequence feels like an abstracted anatomy lesson. (It takes the longest time to work out exactly what we’re supposed to focus on.) Sometimes the soundtrack is amplified, pointlessly, and one scene begins with dust drifting – poetically, I imagine Davies thinks – from the ceiling. He sets one of Hester’s quarrels with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) in a pub but we can’t make out what they’re saying because they’re shouting at each other over a pub sing-along, and Davies is more interested in that. He stages two of these pub sings, though God knows why he thinks anyone might want to look at them. And there’s a real baffler: a flashback to the Blitz, where some dude sings “Molly Malone” in a tube station.

Simon Russell Beale and Rachel Weisz
Davies adds a lot of dialogue of his own, too, and every time he gets close to Rattigan’s play he simplifies it with some clichĂ© from seventy-five bad old movies. In a flashback to the final days of Hester’s marriage to Bill (Simon Russell Beale), they visit his dreadful old mother (Barbara Jefford), who makes them sleep in twin beds and lectures about the dangers of passion, recommending instead “a guarded enthusiasm – it’s safer.” It’s like Pinter written by someone with a tin ear. Poor Beale is stuck in this scene playing Bill as a mama’s boy, though we’re not supposed to think he’s gay, and then of course when he returns after Hester’s suicide attempt and gets to read Rattigan’s actual lines, it’s as if he’s playing some other character entirely. Bill’s decency and his concern for the wife who abandoned him are touching, and Beale is very good in the scenes Rattigan actually penned.

In the play, Freddie’s anger at Hester when he finds out that she’s tried to kill herself comes out of feelings of inadequacy: he knows that his affection for her can’t match up to her love for him, and he feels judged for failing to come up to the mark. The force of her love suffocates him, so inevitably he runs away from her. Davies adds a nonsensical scene – shot, if I’m not mistaken, at London’s Courtauld Gallery – in which he complains about her superior attitude and reminds her that during the war it was men like him who saved civilization for snobs like her. Davies has this beautiful little play with three marvelously drawn characters and he wants to reduce it to some platitudes about class? Worse, he gives the landlady, Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), who’s caring for a fading husband, a self-righteous speech in which she trumpets her notion of love – that it means wiping your husband’s ass and cleaning the sheets when he wets himself and letting him keep his dignity. So when Hester opts not to try to kill herself again after Freddie departs, are we’re supposed to think that she’s taken Mrs. Elton’s words to heart and realizes how selfish she’s been? The Deep Blue Sea is shockingly bad.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. Hi Steve
    I usually enjoy your writing for this site but this review misses the mark entirely. What's truly" baffling" is your (non) take on the scene where "some dude" sings" Molly Malone" in a train station. Davies' films always use pop this way -- if you were too bored to take note of this motif, many of the rest of us are not. It's a moment of social unity in a moment of trauma -- an expressionistic sequence justified by its status as Hester's memory. The sense of belonging is rendered paradoxical by the circumstances, and this ties into what the film -- and Davies' other, excellent movies -- are about: the seductive and powerful pull of nostalgia (the characters' , and also the directors). Note that Hester is able to sing along flawlessly in the tunnel (clinging to her husband) but she fumbles through the words during the pub song with Freddie.Surely you're able to how this disparity parallels her situation in the film -- a dilemma rooted in class anxiety and the social divisions that were enforced after the war?

    1. From Steve: Adam, thank you for your thoughtful response. I'm flattered that you read my pieces. I'm afraid I don't find Terence Davies's treatment of songs compelling in any of his movies - unlike, for example, Dennis Potter's, which seems to inspire it. The idea of public solace at a moment of private trauma isn't, in my view, very dramatically interesting. More to the point, Rattigan's play isn't remotely about the seductive pull of nostalgia or even about class, so Davies seems to me to be grafting his own preoccupations onto material that would do much better without the intrusion. Best, Steve

  2. Enjoyed the perceptive and well-argued review. Perhaps you could correct the typo: "RATTIGAN adds a nonsensical scene...." -- you obviously meant DAVIES.

  3. Dear Steve,
    Thank you for your review. I saw the movie yesterday and I felt that I was missing something between the slow scenes. Also, I felt that some of them had no sense, like the museum one. Now, I am going to look for the original play, so I can enjoy Rattigan's text.

  4. Dear Mr Vineberg,
    I am writing to you to thank you for your review. Last night I went to the cinema to watch the film of which I did not know much, only that it was an adaptation. I had not read the play so I did not really know what I was going to see; I am also one of those who have not seen any Davies film so I could not be prejudiced agaist or for it.
    From the beginnig I found the film very slow and lacking dialogue. I did not really like the camera dancing around the lovers which seemed endlessly to me but I thought it was just the beginning so I said to myself: Let's see. The story seemed on the whole a bunch of separate pieces brought together by the main female character's close ups. What made me feel a bit in a loose was the fact that I could only perceive flat characters and I had the feeling the story did not hold: too much space left for imagination, what did I have to think? I only started to comprenhend Freddie or my previous thoughts about Hester when they had that quarrel in the street. I was also puzzled with the song scenes which made me feel even more confused: where they there to talk about loneliness, brotherhood, their married life...? Too much scope for imagination. Finally what I wanted to tell you and what has made me write to you is that finding your review has given words to my thoughts, so thank you a lot because my feelings, which were not shared by some of my friends, have found a comradeship here in your writing. I am also very happy because watching the film has pushed me to willingly wishing to read the original play parting from the statement: "But, it can not be like this".
    Thank you again

  5. BRAVO I saw a bootleg version of the original last night and was floored by how tough and haunting it was and how VIVIEN LEIGH blows Rachel Weitz out of the water. It is a brutal play about relations, and only flaw is Kenneth Moore one note over acting. A splendid Emlyn Williams and great Eric Portman and at the center the brilliant unsentimental performance of Vivien Leigh. excellent direction and so much more complex than the remake. Tragic that this Leigh performance and this adaptation of the text is lost for now, Joseph Lally