Thursday, 24 November 2011

GFT programme note: The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies' new film is out tomorrow, and jolly good it is too old boy. Here's my programme note for the Glasgow Film Theatre to whet your appetite...

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‘Was it so hard to stay and continue?’ The question is naively asked, yet it encapsulates the emotional upheaval at the core of The Deep Blue Sea. It is posed by Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) to his estranged wife Hester (Rachel Weisz), as he pleads with her to return to their comfortable but staid marriage – a life left behind for romantic fulfilment with pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). But the petition is moot: logic and reason are, the film indicates, impotent in the face of love – even (nay, especially) a desire as self-destructive as the non-reciprocal adoration which Hester feels for Freddie. After a sad soliloquy in which she expresses her wish to die, Hester attempts suicide via pills and an open gas fire, before being revived by her neighbours. The remainder of the film details the fallout of this desperate act over a twenty-four hour period, as relationships strain and tear, and flashbacks fill in the gaps.

As might be expected from director Terence Davies, time and memory are prominent thematic hallmarks: in the opening sequence alone, a ticking clock is heard over the credits, while the passage of time is emphasised by the elliptical editing, the image fading in and out from black caesuras, mimicking Hester’s failing consciousness. Davies freely modifies Terence Rattigan’s 1952 source play to match these interests, altering chronology so as to more openly evoke the associational cycle of memory. Stylistically, there are overt echoes of Davies’ past work; for example, the opening panning shot across the outer-wall of Hester’s home recalls a similar shot in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), which carried similar implications – the move beneath an outer fa├žade, to the emotions that teem within.

William’s question, ‘Was it so hard to stay and continue?’, is also suggestive of another protagonist’s sacrifices – that of Laura in Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945), when faced with a comparable choice. Where Laura forsakes possible happiness with Alec, opting to ‘stay and continue’ with her husband, Hester cannot ignore her passions. This comparison has its limits – Alec’s quiet humanitarian is a world away from Freddie’s tempestuous Ace, while class complications are more pronounced in The Deep Blue Sea than in the middle-class triangle of Brief Encounter – but nonetheless, the films make for complimentary viewing. Davies inserts frequent nods to this cinematic bedfellow: a shot of Hester and William sitting together in a room, but in separate frames (physically proximate, yet nonetheless distanced) is reminiscent of Brief Encounter’s book-end scenes of internal confession; while the scene in which Hester contemplates stepping into the path of an approaching train is a self-confessed homage.[1]

Throughout, period detail is well observed, from the thick smoke that hangs in the air of pubs and living rooms, to the antiquated language used by Freddie, but Davies is uninterested in naturalism per se, with dialogue self-consciously suggestive of its own artificiality (‘this isn’t a line’ promises Freddie when he and Hester first meet; ‘I’m not the villain of the piece!’ William later protests). Yet its theatricality does not detract from the principle characters’ believability, with motives, flaws and impulses expertly delineated. The supporting characters, too, have been sketched with a certain level of verisimilitude, with Davies drawing on personal recollections to refine those elements of Rattigan’s play which, to him, didn’t ‘ring true.’[2] His alterations bring not only authenticity, but heart to potential caricatures like Freddie and Hester’s landlady, who provides Hester with a humbling dose of perspective in the film’s latter stages. ‘Because I grew up in the 50s, I know not only what it looked like,’ Davies explains, ‘but what it felt like.’[3]

Naturally, the Second World War looms large, its aftermath apparent in ways visible (the bombed-out building next door to Hester and Freddie’s home; a flashback to sheltering from the blitz in an underground station), behavioural (Freddie’s struggle to readjust to civilian life after the adrenalised (and traumatic) experience of flying sorties in the Battle of Britain) and metaphorical. ‘It’s [Hester’s] story, but other lives go on’ says Davies. ‘And at the end, without making it sound unbearably pretentious, Hester’s life has been broken, but she’ll carry on, as the country did. It’s a small implication… but it’s just saying that we’ve looked at one life over one day, and look how rich it was! And all these people have lives and stories.’[4]

In his study Britain in the Second World War, Mark Donnelly comments upon the increase in divorces from 1945 onwards, and contemplates the possible cause for the spike. ‘Part of the explanation could be that women developed higher expectations of marriage in the post-war world and greater self-confidence to break a marriage that was not meeting these expectations.’[5] Hester’s dissatisfaction with William is suggestive of this altered attitude towards romance and companionship, emphasised by their age gap. ‘Beware of passion Hester – it always leads to something nasty,’ William's mother warns her, ever respectable and reserved; when asked what it should be replaced with, she suggests ‘a guarded enthusiasm – it’s much safer.’ ‘And much duller,’ Hester rejoinders, her desires intractable. Later, William exasperatedly asks what happened to her to make her so unhappy. The reply is idealistic and fatalist: ‘Love, Bill, nothing else.’

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and freelance writer
University of Glasgow
November 2011


[1] Geoff Andrew (2011) ‘Reckless Moment’ Sight and Sound December 2011, p. 22

[2] Ibid, p. 20

[3] Stuart Jeffries (2011) ‘Terence Davies: Follow Your Hormones’ The Guardian, accessed 22 November at www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/nov/23/terence-davies-deep-blue-sea?newsfeed=true

[4] Andew, p. 20

[5] Mark Donnelly, (1999) Britain in the Second World War (London: Routledge) p. 44

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