THE DEEP BLUE SEA (2011)
Running Time: 98 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: Terence Davies
Distributor: Music Box Films
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Karl Johnson, Barbara Jefford, Ann Mitchell, Harry Hadden-Paton, Sarah Kants, Jolyon Coy
I invited a friend to go to a screening of THE DEEP BLUE SEA, and she asked me about it. I said it was directed by Terence Davies. Who’s that? He directed THE LONG DAY CLOSES and DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES. Well, as usual she didn’t come and anyway I was embarrassed because when the few credits came on at the beginning of the picture it read “Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.” What a mistake to make. I wondered if I were getting as senile as the girls who stop me to pet my dog think I am?
Actually Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea is directed by Terence Davies, which is remarkable because I can’t think of two more divergent sensibilities than Rattigan and Davies. Davies’ films tend to be impressionistic tone poems of memory and longing. Emotion is out in the open and lingers and suffuses the imagery. Rattigan was famous for writing what was called the Well Made Play, the meticulously crafted and constructed play where emotion is expressed hidden in language by resolutely middle class characters.
For twenty years Rattigan was the gold standard of West End drama. The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, French Without Tears, Rattigan was at the top. His work reflected an education at Harrow and Trinity, Oxford. Then in 1956 came Osborne’s Look Back In Anger and the beginning of the Angry Young Man movement. Tellingly the male lead in The Deep Blue Sea is a war hero who won a DFC and bar, and in the 1957 novel Room At The Top (later a 1959 film) the protagonist, Joe Lampton, is contemptuous of a rival who had been an officer who calls him “sergeant” and mentions that he “won the bloody DFC”.
Interestingly enough the Angry Young Man movement is nearly contemporary with the French New Wave in cinema, which sought to overthrow the so-called Tradition of Quality, dubbed the Cinema of Papa. Both movements originated in the post-war generation and occurred roughly ten years after the war ended. Both movements rejected the continuation of the pre-war middle class culture.
In America it was the emergence of Rock & Roll that signaled a break with the past. The pre-war big band music had, for economic reasons, been transformed into personality vocalist driven music that still sounded like a streamlined version of what had gone before. 1956 was the year Elvis Presley broke through. Mitch Miller, the A&R man at Columbia Records, hated Rock & Roll. The new world that was aborning had to fight to crash through the old culture.
The Deep Blue Sea was a sort of clinical documentation of the effect of the war on the moral, social and spiritual state of play circa 1950. In fact the opening title of the film is “Around 1950”. The visual is a slow crane shot starting with a bomb site, (there were still bomb sites in London when I lived there in the ‘70s) and slowly travels to the terrace house next door in what I take to be Islington. The camera elevates to the neglected and paint chipped window frames of the second floor and behind that the shabby flat of Hester who is composing her suicide note. Her actions are underlined by some very insistently dramatic music supplied by Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto which reminded me of the suicide scene in HUMORESQUE where Joan Crawford does herself in to Wagner’s Liebstold arranged for violin or Walerian Borowczyk’s THE STORY OF SIN which uses Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E-major to kill off the female lead.
The closing shot, 24 hours later, is the exact reverse, panning down from the same window back to the bombsite. These bracketing traveling shots have been used by director Davies before, but here they reinforce the classical dramatic demands of unity of time and space. There are a few flashbacks giving some “backstory”, a bit confusing at the beginning but an economical way to tell the story and not break the classical unities. The story is simple. Hester has left her husband, Sir William, a judge much, much older than her, for the pleasures of the flesh with Freddie, an ex-RAF pilot and a war hero who is at something of a loose end who seems to make the odd pound golfing. (He wins seven pounds over the weekend, missing her birthday, giving her three for the rent.)
It is because Hester senses that Freddie is growing bored with her that she attempts suicide. She swallows a dozen aspros and turns on the gas fire without the flame but the gas odor is noticed and anyway she hadn’t put enough money in the meter to kill herself with, a slightly comic premise in itself. She is brought around by someone who appears to be a doctor but who, for some reason (never explained), has been struck off the register. I thought that maybe he had been an abortionist but others have suggested it was for homosexuality. Thus we have the big three moral crimes of the ‘50s: adultery, homosexuality and abortion.
Some reviewers have described Freddie as being disturbed by his experiences in the war but it was exactly the opposite. Freddie had what was known as “a good war”, that is he survived, saw action and was decorated. In fact for many of these people the war was the highlight of their lives. Freddie recalls the excitement of fear. There was the readjustment that had to be made to return to stuffy old England, gloomy, bomb-scared, rationed, and settled. The interiors of are all closed in and overstuffed, the claustrophobia is palpable. The camera rarely leaves a room with people. Someone may leave the room, but you stay in the room. It reminds me of the Monty Python torture of The Comfy Chair.
The war was a release from this tight little island and it was also a tremendous unifying force. The one scene in which its possible to discern something really positive in the relationship between Hester and Sir William is when they’re clutching each other in the Aldwych tube station during a bombing raid. As the station reverberates and dust comes down from the ceiling, the inhabitants sing along to ‘Molly Malone.’
Every time the protagonists venture into the local there seems to be a ding dong on. In one scene the song they’re singing to is ‘You Belong To Me’ which was a #1 hit in both Britain and America in 1952 for Jo Stafford. Originally it was written to evoke the separation between lovers caused by the war but while those lyrics were toned down when polished for commercial release, it still evokes that wartime feeling. The lyrics that survive include:
See the Pyramids along the Nile/watch the sunrise from a tropic isle/just remember darling all the while/you belong to me… and Fly the ocean in a silver plane/see the jungle when its wet with rain/just remember till you’re home again/you belong to me….
It reminds me of the Noel Coward line: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”
If the return to the drabness of post-war English life after the excitement of the war needed a remedy there was always one: get out. Freddie is hoping to get a job in Brazil as a test pilot. It’s no coincidence that in that other post-war play of middle class adultery, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, the man is aiming to leave the country. South Africa or South America, always south where it’s warm and bright. Actually a more informative film on what was going through people’s minds after the war was PERFECT STRANGERS (VACATION FROM MARRIAGE, US) with Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr as a mousy married couple in 1940, who, from their experiences in the war have become virtually different people. Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward, Clemence Dane (who won an Oscar™ for the script) – a triumvirate of Lords of the Pre-War West End.
Freddy uses her suicide attempt as an excuse to leave her behind the way he is leaving dowdy England. In the end she is stuck in her bedsit with Freddie going out the door. Rachel Weisz plays Hester who doesn’t look quite old enough to be at a disadvantage with the supposedly younger Freddie, played by Tom Hiddleston. The real noticeable age gap is between Hester and Sir William who really looks about the same age as his bitch of a mother. Hiddleston would seem to be the prototypical Rattigan actor having been at Eton and Cambridge.
In the end Hester chooses, as Dorothy Parker put it, “You might as well live.” She’s not going to go back to her stultifying life with her husband nor is she going to kill herself. We see her turn on the gas fire, but this time it’s for warmth.
Over the end credits, the song ‘Any Time,’ a 1921 tune that was taken to #2 by Eddie Fisher in 1952, is heard. It’s this version that is used. Eddie Fisher was one half of the golden couple of the 1950s, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Eddie and Debbie. Then Eddie’s best friend, Mike Todd died in a plane crash, leaving his widow, Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie’s best friend. Then Eddie left Debbie for Liz. He divorced Debbie and married Liz and his career went into the toilet. Then entered CLEOPATRA and Liz met Dick, Richard Burton, and Eddie Fisher was publicly cuckolded and nobody’s career suffered but instead they became international idols commanding million dollar fees. This was the ‘60s and adultery was no longer a moral crime. Abortion would be legalized and so would, by the end of the decade, homosexuality. The world of Terence Rattigan was very much in the rear view mirror.
The shear craftsmanship of Rattigan’s plays gave them a life beyond their specific social context. Not bad for a writer who said that he wrote his plays to please a symbolic playgoer, ‘Aunt Edna,’ someone from the well-off middle-class who had conventional tastes.
But wait, that’s not all. Of course there is an entirely different level to this whole thing, a subtext if you will. There is a strong element of, wait for it, homosexuality. The inspiration for The Deep Blue Sea was the suicide of a lover who he had recently thrown over. Kenneth Morgan had been a promising actor in and had starred in the 1940 film of Rattigan’s FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS. When he got out of the navy in 1946 he had lost his boyish good looks and couldn’t restart his career. He was Rattigan’s lover but wanted a commitment he couldn’t or wouldn’t give. Morgan eventually left him for a younger straight actor.
Rattigan was told of Kenneth’s suicide and it’s circumstances and set off to write about it. “My new play will open with the body dead in front of the gas fire,” he told director Peter Glenville. He later said, “Being told that Kenneth had killed himself in that squalid room was the worst moment of my life. I have been haunted ever since by the thought that I might have prevented it, had I behaved differently. Kenneth was the only person in my life with whom I was ever truly in love. But he demanded total commitment, which I, foolishly, was too busy to give him.”
In addition, Rattigan was pursued by a millionaire Conservative politician, Sir Henry Channon, who was 15 years older than him. So Rattigan was both the Sir William character and the Freddie. It’s easy to see why the early draft of The Deep Blue Sea (the title is spoken in the play as “When you’re caught between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea can sometimes look very inviting”) the characters were men but at the time all plays presented in public had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain. As homosexual relations were strictly illegal and a jailable offense no play with it as either subject matter or principal characters could be approved until 1968. Even the idea of its passing mention was avoided, as in Rattigan’s Separate Tables. When the bogus Major has his unsavory past exposed, it is girls he has fondled and not the boys Rattigan originally wrote. Before 1968 it literally was the love that dared not mention its name. Several Rattigan plays, especially those involving triangles, seem to play out as if written for male casts and I’m sure subsequent revivals will make use of this strategy, ad infinitum.
One word of warning, this film is only for those fluent in the English language, and by that I mean if you don’t know the difference between literally and figuratively, think “ultimate” means “the best”, and are offended by the “grammar Nazis” correcting your speech, then this is not the film for you since much of the dialogue is precise and meanings of words carry much of the weight of the film.
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