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‘The Deep Blue Sea’: A Moving Melody of Escape

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 23, 2012

Propriety and recklessness make for uneasy bedfellows in The Deep Blue Sea, a shimmering exploration of romantic obsession and the tension between fitting in and flying free.

Adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play (originally filmed in 1955 by Anatole Litvak), director Terence Davies heads straight for the heart, ruthlessly shaving extraneous characters and dialogue. What’s left is an almost unbearably hushed study of agony and ecstasy that, in Davies’ hands, transcends its theatrical roots to an astonishing degree. Over and over, he creates moments so purely cinematic in their mute emotionalism that they can feel like rebukes to Rattigan’s carefully crafted speeches. In one of these, fortyish Hester (Rachel Weisz) watches her younger lover, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), act the clown in a bar, while the camera swivels back and forth between them. In just those few seconds, we learn more about their relationship than either could put into words.

Unfolding over the course of a single day in London, somewhere around 1950, the film flashes backward and forward without hindering its narrative flow. Time doesn’t really matter here, though the times do: a country weathering the austerity of postwar rationing, with flyboys and soldiers in rocky transition to civvy street, and the wounds of the Blitz around every corner.

No longer a dashing fighter pilot, feckless Freddie is unmoored by peacetime, his rakish immaturity and ready laugh no protection from this new aimlessness. Hester’s neediness confuses him: It’s a burden he doesn’t know how to handle.

Neither does she. Ten months earlier, she abandoned her respectable life her and fusty but kind husband (Simon Russell Beale, indispensably dignified), a High Court judge. Now she’s trapped in a nicotine-brown bedsit — and in a passion as unfamiliar as the tattered neighborhood outside her window.

When we meet her, she’s gulping aspirin and feeding change into the gas meter, a suicide note in her hand; saved by the landlady (a marvelous Ann Mitchell), who’s already suspicious about her tenants’ marital status, Hester realizes the precariousness of her social situation. Not only is attempted suicide illegal but, like her literary namesake, Hester might as well have a scarlet “A” stitched to her clothing.

But Rattigan, who was gay at a time when following your heart meant likely imprisonment, knew what it was to hide in plain sight — as does Davies, who cloaks Hester’s operatic emotions in a careful reserve. When they escape, they do so as in all his movies: by music. This time it’s in ravishing, tumescent excerpts from Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, carrying us from despair to hope as the movie comes full circle.

Best known for his magnificently harrowing autobiographical accounts of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and ’50s — Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes — Davies likes to view the past through cigarette smoke and the words of popular songs. The singalongs in pubs and living-rooms that pepper his films are as much class markers as emotional touchstones: In a bar one night with Freddie and two friends, Hester is, tellingly, the only person in the swaying, belting crowd who doesn’t know the words.

This understanding of music’s power to bind or exclude is as embedded in Davies’ cinematic language as the smoky beauty of his images. In The Deep Blue Sea, the Londoners huddled in a tube station during an air raid singing “Molly Malone” are as sentimentally united as the movie audience in Distant Voices weeping through the score of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”

And as Hester and Freddie dance to Jo Stafford’s creamy ballad “You Belong to Me,” the barriers between them melt away, and we think maybe they’ll make it after all. (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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