The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Screenplay by Terence Davies from the play by Terence Rattigan
According to the IMdB, Terence Davies had never heard of Rachel Weisz, but wanted her for the movie after seeing her in Amy Foster. The original Rattigan play on which it’s based was written in 1950. It’s said to be partly autobiographical, except for a necessary gender change from male to female to cover his tracks, much as Coward and Maugham did in the same era. I assume that Rattigan empathizes with the late middle-aged cuckolded judge, Sir William, as a rich successful person himself, but maybe not … he was only thirty-nine in 1950. As most of the writing goes to Hester, maybe that’s the identification.
When we were doing revue shows for language learners, we had to do a rehearsed and acted reading of a “real” play once a month in costume. When I started producing them, I inherited the boxes of play scripts which had been used over the previous twenty years (Rattigan, Coward, Maugham, Priestley), including a full acting set of The Deep Blue Sea with copious underlining of parts. I read it then. We never contemplated performing it for a moment, being into John Antrobus, Peter Barnes and Peter Terson at the time. We gave all the sets away to a local school’s drama department, keeping just one of each for reference. I had never picked it off the shelf until today.
It was revived, or resucitated, by the Royal Theatre Bath in 2008, with Greta Saatchi in the lead role, which is why I went to see it. Judging by the photo of the 1950 set, it was remarkably faithful to Rattigan’s vision. The stage play struggled with the intrinsically creaky plot and script, but was greatly enlivened by Tim McMullen playing the disgraced German doctor (now a bookie’s clerk) for laughs. That production relied on old-school over-acting throughout, and was terribly theatrical. Fair enough, it was in a theatre. I wondered how it would transfer to the screen, and wondered why anyone had bothered with such a hammy old bit of drama. Some of the ‘significance’ in the play is calling the central character Hester and putting her in a red dressing gown (Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is one of fiction’s classic adulteresses, though nowhere near as well-known in Britain as the USA). The film sets the time at the beginning with a title “Around 1950.”
The first thing is it’s not a filmed play. Terence Davies has radically reshaped the story, using a lot of flashback. The first ten minutes are virtually all flashback to the back story, virtually wordless except for Freddy mouthing on about “saving dear old Blighty, Old Fruit.” Freddy only speaks in trite lines and cliché, as in the play, but this is his character. He’s still stuck in the Glory Days of Fighter Boys at Biggin Hill, and can’t escape the Summer of 40. It’s all accompanied by very loud impassioned overwrought violin, as if from the Hungarian restaurant from hell. It’s Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. To me, this is misguidedly overpowering soundtrack … it’s SHOUTING at you what to feel rather than assisting you into an emotional position. It comes back to mark times of GREAT EMOTION too. A lot of the flashback is writhing bare legs in close-up.
Davies has added the best scenes in the whole thing … when we flashback to Hester and William visiting William’s mother (Barbara Jefford), a truly nasty elderly lady with an acid tongue. We see William emasculated in her presence. Not in the original play, but so what? It’s the most memorable scene in the film. It replaces the humour in Dr Miller (aka Dr Muller) who is virtually eradicated from the plot, reduced to two very brief cameos. Miller’s backstory goes completely. As does any attempt at levity or humour apart from that one brief scene. This is one serious glum sad story, believe me.
Freddy & Hester (from intro sequence)
Davies also moves Act Two out of the confines of the flat into the streets and the pub, meaning Hester’s badge of shame is a muted red raincoat (guess how easy that was to buy in 1950) rather than a red dressing gown. I thought it significant that they’d bothered to keep that reference. The pub has two inexplicable L-O-N-G choral singing sequences, with the cheerful loveable Cockneys and ex-Spitfire flying toffs uniting to warble, as they did in 1950. The second song, You Belong To Me, mercifully blends into a proper version with backing while Hester and Freddy dance. The painful nature of these songs is exacerbated by taking Hester down into the Aldwych tube, where she contemplates jumping in front of a train, but is saved by a flashback to the Blitz with the station full of cheerful loveable Cockneys, accompanying a tragic boy singing Molly Malone (aka Cockles & Mussels Alive, Alive-O) … which must last twenty minutes. No, it can’t have been twenty. Perhaps two? It felt like twenty. I’d have jumped in front of a train if I had been there. We all would.
Sir William … a lot of it is this dark and murky
Rachel Weisz is a superb actor, not only on film, but on stage. She has the English accent perfectly (well 99.99% … I detected an American inflection on just one word, which I don’t remember). The other two leads are brilliant. It’s not filmed theatre, and Davies has improved on the original, but what you have, in spite of the considerable improvement, is Rattigan’s original story (younger person leaves luxury life with older spouse for newer model with bigger dick, or perhaps just ‘a dick,’ but he turns out to be a complete bastard, and stupid to boot), and that’s just not that fascinating.
The agenda about loveable Cockneys is shoehorned into those dreadful pub scenes. You half expect a Cockney to chirp, Gor, Love-a-duck, guv’nor, you aren’t ‘arf a card to a boozy ex-Spitfire chappie, which would be in line with the dialogue whenever Freddy and his pal ‘Jacky’ Jackson (We did 93 in his Alvis on the Great West Road) are about. The wisdom of You don’t know what love is until you have to wipe someone’s arse is reserved for the cheerful loveable working class landlady too. The mindset is Rattigan era.
In the terms of 1950, when it’s set, this would have been an afternoon matinee film. My mother would go along with a neighbour and a supply of embroidered hankies to watch special showings of weepies at the Modern Cinema in Moordown in Bournemouth. I suppose they kept dusting off Brief Encounter, but there was an audience for this sort of thing, long-term and not prime time. Television eradicated that, and it’s tempting to say the confines of the film are more TV than cinema. There’s enough adroit filming (like through cigarette smoke) to make it a bit too arty for TV, but less so when everyone has a big plasma or LCD screen, many of them HD. The muted colours of the washed-out 1950s are used throughout. I’d seen Birdsong Part One on TV the night before and the flashback to 1910 sequences are much like this (though lit for France, not gloomy London and with more explicit writhing about).