Terence Rattigan was one of the most successful and celebrated British playwrights of the two decades between 1936 and 1956. But with the appearance of writers like John Osborne, he came to be looked upon as old-fashioned and stuffy, and his work dismissed as hopelessly out-of-date. Even when “The Deep Blue Sea” (1953) was filmed in 1955 (with Vivien Leigh), the tale of marital infidelity among the English upper class felt stale. But Rattigan’s work has recently been undergoing revival and reassessment, and in any event the material of “Sea” falls neatly into the territory inhabited by writer-director Terence Davies, whose obsession with the England of the post-war years has already been evident in his previous films “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992). Of course, his version of the era is one in which the nostalgia is marked by sadness and ennui.
The film takes its basic plot from Rattigan, but in mood and technique it’s pure Davies. It begins with the attempted suicide of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in a shabby London flat, ca. 1950. After she’s saved by concerned landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) and another tenant (Karl Johnson), the story flashes back to her earlier life as the wife of staid judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), whose mother (Barbara Jefford) treats her with undisguised disdain. It quickly becomes apparent that she has a lover, and she rushes off to him posthaste. He’s dashing but poor ex-pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), with whom she moves into that flat.
But Freddie is flighty in every sense. He’s more interested in good times than responsibility, and when he ignores Hester once too often—on her birthday, no less—she tries suicide. After he discovers the cause for the attempt on her own life, he abandons her and refuses to return, eventually accepting a job in Brazil, where he intends to go alone.
Narratively that’s all there is to “The Deep Blue Sea,” and in truth the stiff-upper lipism and highly formal dialogue has a very arch feel. But the film is equally dominated by Davies’ very personal approach, which as usual is marked by painterly compositions, long, deliberate tracking shots and the use of popular songs of the period, often delivered by crowds, to capture the melancholy mood he’s anxious to create. Visually the effect is very impressive: the attention to detail by production designer James Marifield, art directors David Hindle and Sarah Pasquali, set decorator Deborah Wilson and costume designer Ruth Myers is astonishing, and it’s captured to perfection in the gauzy widescreen images of Florian Hoffmeister and delivered in the deliberate, meditative rhythm the director prefers by editor David Charap. All of this to the accompaniment of a score supervised by Ian Neil that uses the ravishing slow movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto to suggest the passion running beneath the rigidly-controlled exterior.
But the music can’t provide what the film as a whole fails to achieve, and the impact of the gorgeous images can’t compensate for the fact that in dramatic terms “Sea” comes across as stilted and affected. The performers are straitjacketed by the combination of Rattigan’s (and/or Davies’) strongly theatrical writing and the director’s positively marmoreal style. Weisz tries almost desperately to break through to some emotional fullness, but is hamstrung by the material and approach, while Hiddleston seems content to shout out his lines in Noel Coward form. Beale, a stage artist, underplays in the theatrical fashion that actually comes across like overplaying, but perhaps the most telling turn is Jefford’s, who radiates an air of snooty entitlement that’s almost a caricature.
So “The Deep Blue Sea” (the title leaves out the “Devil” part of the threat, of course, though the choice here is between passion and propriety) is clearly of a piece with Davies’ other films. But his is a style that’s very much an acquired taste—and a rarefied one few are likely to respond to, whatever its objective merits. And it’s hardly calculated to help the Rattigan renaissance.