Saturday 19 November 2011

Play misty for me: "The Deep Blue Sea"

Even as someone who'd previously considered himself a Terence Davies agnostic, I was knocked out by 2008's Of Time and the City, which evoked multiple histories (of Liverpool, its buildings, and its people) while refusing easy nostalgia through the director's own wilful, witty, defiant voice. Perhaps this was a mere fluke, a one-off from a filmmaker whose fiction work has always been guided by - to appropriate an earlier Davies title - distant voices, still lives. The Deep Blue Sea, Davies's new adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play, opens with a long, slow tracking shot along a bombed-out East End street, then up the side of one of its few surviving tenement buildings, and the seasoned Davies viewer will doubtless be reassured this is business as usual; such measured tracking shots were an essential part of those earlier works.

Yet this is as linear as The Deep Blue Sea gets for some time, as Davies adopts a fractured approach to his source material that risks alienating the casual viewer before the story has had chance to pull them in. Here we see Rachel Weisz scrabbling to find the coins needed to put into the meter in order to gas herself, to a soundtrack of incessant Samuel Barber violins. And here: the limbs of two lovers merging in a manner that makes us think of another film (the framing's a direct lift from a sex scene in Almodovar's Live Flesh) before The Deep Blue Sea has really established its own distinct identity. We're meant, I think, to be moved or stirred by these individuals' plight, yet already a gap has opened up between what Davies wants us to feel, and what we actually do. These grand shows of all-consuming passion feel unmoored: they float, scenes from the middle or the end of the film drifting into a demonstrably incorrect order.

What then follows we interpret as this woman's recovery from her attempts at self-sacrifice - or is it just the prelude? Weisz's Hester is stuck in a loveless marriage - witnessed by a shot of twin beds in the matrimonial suite, never the twain to meet - with an older judge (Simon Russell Beale). Her eye, however, has been caught by a young, handsome, brillantined ex-RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Her quandary is instantly apparent: she has security and companionship with the older man, with the younger, chemistry and physical attraction. The first is not quite love, the second not much more than lust. You see where the title comes from, even as you struggle (and, apparently, Davies struggles) to put the rest of the film together.

Painterly compositions and vast plumes of cigarette smoke bear witness to the effort Davies has put into finding images that might match or surpass the eloquence of Rattigan's words - something not nearly enough period filmmakers do - yet I think I'd rather have had those words the right way round, for all the good these strategies come to do the film. The Deep Blue Sea succumbs to an inbuilt mistiness that is at once literal - as though not only the camera, but the set and everyone upon it had been smeared with Vaseline - and symptomatic. Davies seems to be crying at this tragedy before we've had the chance to: the film feels predetermined, insistent in its snuffling out of anything even remotely spontaneous, the emotion Weisz, Hiddleston and Beale are trying to generate between them getting buried beneath a thick top-layer of director-approved Period Acting. In having to make room for these old airs, graces and gestures, the film has to compress everything else: Hester finally walks out on the judge, only to encounter him again in the very next scene, which we're told takes place ten months later. Any emotional resonance in their parting, and in their reunion, is squashed stone dead.

It would be churlish to deny the film is possessed of a certain muted elegance. The casting has an eye for period beauty and handsomeness, even if we might quibble with Davies's decision to pickle these actors in aspic once they've arrived on set. That audience which still appreciates red phone boxes and communal East End singalongs - of which there are a near-parodic amount - will doubtless go home happy. Yet the sorry truth is, after its disastrous opening gambit, The Deep Blue Sea doesn't do nearly enough to win you back, and only in their final scenes together do the actors start to seem like human beings. One gesture - the closing of a suitcase - generates more power than there is in the film's previous 97 minutes combined; the pay-off - as that initial tracking-shot is put into reverse - is properly haunting in its suggestion of reconstruction, and of dark corners still to be explored. For the most part, the film is only tragic because Terence Davies says it is - and, in this instance, I found his words, and indeed these images, simply just weren't enough.

The Deep Blue Sea opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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