FILM REVIEW: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

The Deep Blue Sea (UK, 2011)
Directed by Terence Davies
Starring Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale, Tom Hiddleston, Ann Mitchell

One of the hardest things to rationalise as a film reviewer is when a director you love suddenly gets it wrong. Reviewing the latest Michael Bay disaster, or Brett Ratner-driven slice of hackery, is pretty easy: simply string together four or five superlatives, add some moral outrage and leave it to stew in its own juices. What's not so easy is trying to explain how Terence Davies has gone from something as inspired as Of Time and the City to such an abject failure in The Deep Blue Sea.Davies' output as a filmmaker has always been an acquired taste - which, in this context, is equally a loaded phrase and a straight-up compliment. Whether you like his back catalogue or not (and even he has mixed feelings), he has a distinctive voice and series of interests which set him apart from the mainstream. He has campaigned tirelessly for the promotion of British cinema, furiously refusing to accept the perceived dominance of Hollywood, both financially and artistically.You couldn't put the failure of Davies' latest film down to him being out of his depth. He has dabbled in period drama before, most prominently in The House of Mirth 11 years ago. But more than that, he has an intrinsic understanding of 1950s Britain, retaining both a childlike fondness of its cinema and a very real understanding of its social problems, which he experienced as a child. Davies has frequently described his father as "psychotic", and in Of Time and the City he painfully records both the realisation of his homosexuality and his disillusionment with religion.One thing that The Deep Blue Sea has clearly in its favour is the way it looks. Florian Hoffmeister's cinematography is lush, glossy and full of rich colours, which somewhat evokes the work of the late great Jack Cardiff. The period details are immaculate, whether it's the costumes the characters wear or the songs they sing in the pub. It's not, or at least it doesn't appear to be, a pretend version of 1950s Britain, either dreamt up by the tourist board or dropped in from Hollywood.Equally compelling is Davies' choice of music. His films have been described as having a "symphonic" quality, which goes back not just to 1950s melodrama but to the silent films which ultimately inspired them. In this case Davies turns to Samuel Barber, peppering many of Rachel Weisz's scenes with those long, elegiac strokes of the bow for which Barber was rightly famed. You won't find the now-clichéd Adagio for Strings sneaking in under the radar, but what there is works resoundingly well.But for all its lavish grandiosity, the big failing of The Deep Blue Sea is something so ironically simple: we just don't care about any of the people on screen. Whether because of the source material, the performances or Davies' approach to either, this is a damning indictment of Davies as a filmmaker. What has united all of his work in the past is an intrinsic connection to the characters - we can empathise with and understand them even in the most fantastical situations. This is the first film which Davies has made in which we have no connection to the characters at all, unless 'connection' can include emotions like contempt, anger and disdain.Part of the problem lies in the casting of Rachel Weisz. Davies said that she was the only person who could play Hester Collyer, and looking at her you can understand why. Weisz does have a kind of classical beauty which recalls Deborah Kerr, and she wears period costume very well. But while she may look the part, she fails completely on a dramatic level, leaving us annoyed by every word and action of hers on screen.When Weisz was performing in A Streetcar Named Desire, she gave an interview bemoaning the lack of dramatic filmmaking in Hollywood. She pointed to the paucity of adventurous drama in a time of obsession with genre, and in particular to a dearth of decent female leads. It's hard to argue against that, but someone urgently needs to tell her that 'drama' and 'moaning for two hours' are not the same thing. Hester does nothing but cry, moan, scream, smoke and stare mournfully into middle distance. Weisz is worse here than she is in The Lovely Bones, so much so that at times you wish her character would just get on with it and top herself.The male characters in the film fare no better. Simon Russell Beale is a very talented Shakespearean actor, and as with Weisz he looks the part as the elderly judge firmly in his mother's pocket. But he very quickly drifts into a stiff-upper-lip stereotype, as the film makes no effort to challenge our expectations of his occupation or social standing. Tom Hiddleston gets an equally duff hand, starting and ending as a caricature, namely the pilot who can't get over the war and return to a normal life.It would be tempting in light of this to put Davies in the same camp as Noah Baumbach. He is guilty of the same cardinal sin of The Squid and the Whale: giving us a film without any empathetic characters, let alone an interesting story. The difference is that Baumbach seems to have genuine contempt for his audience, branding them as philistines if they don't understand why it is engaging to watch over-privileged pseudo-intellectuals whinging about their massive houses and expensive educations. Davies shows no such contempt: he has just mis-steped in such a dramatic way that this would appear to be the case.One could argue that the failure of The Deep Blue Sea is a failure of the source material rather than its cinematic execution. Terence Rattigan's later work, written after the Second World War, is by and large dated and uninteresting. Early-1950s theatre was an empty and nostalgic celebration of pre-war life, with plays which seemed to lack any bearing on or interest in reality. The Deep Blue Sea is no exception, and its celebration of the British stiff-upper-lip feels horribly stale in 2011.While all of this is true, however, the responsibility of making a film work ultimately lies with its director. There have been many filmmakers which have taken average scripts and acquitted themselves perfectly well: either of John Hillcoat's films are reasonable examples. But Davies makes the fatal error of assuming that we should care or be interested, rather than giving us any reason to of its own accord. He plays everything so straight that there is no way in for a modern audience, for whom the wartime attitudes seem at best admirably outdated and at worst totally absurd.The big dramatic problem with The Deep Blue Sea lies in Hester's frustration or repression - something Weisz would know all about from A Streetcar Named Desire. If you're going to show repression, there has to be a pay-off or some form of character development to make all this pressure worthwhile, whether it's a happy ending or a lonely suicide. But this moment never arrives; the central relationship is tedious, unbelievable, and goes absolutely nowhere.The Deep Blue Sea reminds us of two great periods of British filmmaking. Firstly, it recalls the great work of Powell and Pressburger in the 1940s and early-1950s, as they grabbed the conventions of melodrama by the scruff of the neck and produced works of profundity, nuance and visual splendour. And secondly, it reminds us just how important the British New Wave was in eroding these conventions, removing the veils of ignorance, escapism and denial which blighted so much of 1950s cinema.The Deep Blue Sea is caught between the devil and its title, lacking the brilliance of the former and the relevance of the latter. You sit there amongst the tedious story and annoying characters, yearning for Malcolm McDowell to burst in brandishing a machine gun and inform the characters that the world they knew and fought for is long gone. Only time will tell how damaging this will prove to Davies' craft as a filmmaker. It is at very best an admirable failure, being a beautifully shot folly for an audience that no longer exists.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: An absolute and obsolete calamity


Post a Comment