Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea

A great play made into a dreary, over-indulgent movie.

Terence Rattigan was once the tidy master of the unmissably successful, well-made British play, who long fell out of favor, like Noel Coward, with the 1950s advent of the Angry Young Man/Kitchen Sink school of drama personified by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Recent revivals of his work in London and on Broadway have recently rightfully rekindled interest in this supreme craftsman, although not yet to the popular extent which Coward now posthumously enjoys.

The Deep Blue Sea is Rattigan’s best play, one of the most sensitively observed, trenchant studies of romantic passion ever conceived in any medium. It was based on the tragic suicide of one of his lovers, and he actually wrote a gay version of it, before altering genders to make it a suitable triumphant West End vehicle for Peggy Ashcroft in 1952. Anatole Litvak made a film of it in 1955, with a superb Vivien Leigh as the suicidal Hester Collyer, ably supported by Kenneth More as Freddie, the bluff, polar opposite of an aviator lover she is besotted by and Emlyn Williams as Sir William, her supportive but neglected husband.
Terence Davies now brings it to the screen with Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale in the aforementioned roles and has made a total, self-indulgent botch of it. The thing that separates real drama from soap opera in such studies of women’s passion is a certain essential terseness, as well as the innate good taste to steer clear of easy bathos; it’s the difference between, say, Cocteau’s The Human Voice and Douglas Sirk. Unfortunately, Davies goes right for the excess and sentiment Rattigan scrupulously avoided and, additionally, has rendered the drama completely passionless. This director once told me in an interview that he had never had any romantic involvement with anyone, nor did he ever really expect to. Although one hesitates to bring an artist’s personal life into any objective judgment of his work, here this lack seems particularly germane.

Litvak opened up Rattigan’s claustrophobic, one-set world of the dreary, clandestinely adulterous flat Hester and Freddie share, even providing a ritzy ski resort setting, but this wasn’t as disastrous to the work as Davies’ additions, which include an extendedly “picturesque” meditation on wartime London, set in a blacked-out train station, with typically Davies-ian haunted-looking commuters, and someone warbling an “evocative” street song. (No matter what the film, this director just can’t seem to get over elegiac musings on his childhood British past, however inapropos.) The missteps start with the initial scene, which Rattigan originally, indelibly, set with Hester’s inanimate body onstage, passed out from the gas she has turned on in her suicide attempt. Davies has to go dumbly literal, actually showing her preparing her would-be demise. He adds a pointless scene involving a meal the married couple share with William’s icy mater (Barbara Jefford), in an unnecessary attempt to further elucidate their dead marriage, as well as a self-consciously staged flashback romantic meeting between Hester and Freddie, set to an overamplified recording of Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me.” Davies tries to evoke their lust in some nude bed writhings, but they’re so obviously posed, with a classy Samuel Barber violin concerto on the soundtrack, it’s as if he were observing some cold marble statues.

Weisz ostensibly could have done well with this plummiest of roles, essayed not only by Ashcroft, but Blythe Danner, Harriet Walter, Greta Scacchi, Penelopes Wilton and Keith, and the great Margaret Sullavan in its Broadway debut (although Uta Hagen, who replaced her on the road, told me she was miscast). But she seems straitjacketed by Davies’ approach, unable to walk that vital fine line between Hester’s sense of propriety and inevitable emotional surges. (She smokes a lot of cigarettes, staring into space.) Hiddleston, too epicene by half, conveys nothing of the raw sexual charge that would have drawn her to him, however wrong he may be for her. Only the skillful Beale manages to evince some real humanity, making William seem the real protagonist of the film, which is, of course, completely wrong.

It’s a crying shame that Davies so strongly felt the need to make “cinema” here, when a simple, clear rendering of the play, as Sidney Lumet did so brilliantly with Long Day’s Journey into Night, would have more than sufficed and resulted in a true work of art.