I should love this film. I want to love this film.
It begins with a long musical section, to Barber I think, that sees a crane shot travel from a bombed out street to a dull window in a dull house. It’s a shot that screams melodrama. A device I’ve always hated. There’s nothing objectively wrong with it but it bores me. It is a deceptive confrontational opening, perhaps deliberately so. Terrence Davies has said that you should either buy into the film in the first two minutes or leave the cinema. I didn’t take his advice.
For the first hour of the film I feel alienated, distanced and bored. Too aware of the fake-ness of a flickering fire in an otherwise carefully real lighting set up. Too aware of the untrue anachronism of real pieces of 1950s architecture and objects in a world that is otherwise new. The real objects with their weight of 60 years giving lie to the otherwise newly formulated recreation of period. It’s such a lovingly, almost painted world, shot by director of photography Florian Hoffmeister, that in its realism -in the form of the period milk cart and underground station, and in its affectations -in the lighting effects of the gas fire and the passing train, we are distanced.
There’s also an issue with the casting. Undoubtedly Rachel Weisz is ‘luminous’ as Terence Davies says. Too luminous. She doesn’t fit in this drab and pallid world and she doesn’t fit either with the older judge William, to which she is married or to the manic dissolute pilot Freddie, she leaves her husband for. She’s too beautiful and unique for either of them. This is part of the point but it is pushed too far. Neither of these relationships quite ring true. Strangely, all the individual performances are strong.
All of the cast are almost completely superb. And this holds across the board from the sensitivity of Hestor (Rachel Weisz), to the wit of William (Simon Russell Beale), to the desperation of Freddie (Tom Hiddlestone), to the bit players of the doctor (Karl Johnson) and house keeper (Barbara Jefford).
Couple this with great dialogue (written by Terrence Davies after Terrence Rattigan’s play) and assured editing (David Charap) and the film is allowed to reach moments of true emotion and emotional truth.
Even the camera manages to become emotional in the slow endless rotating of Hestor’s death dream in a perfect sequence that evokes both the disorientation of asphyxiation and the glorious confusion of sex. The film becomes sublime in the final scene between Freddie and Hestor, when we see the real Freddie emerge from under bravado and there is a moment that is raw and true. This is what I want from cinema. The dilemma that The Deep Blue Sea presents is: is a single scene of truth worth an hour of boredom and good craft that is likely to be forgotten?
In the earlier scenes, where William and Hestor are visiting William’s mother or when Freddie and Hestor confront each other outside the pub, the dialogue is good and well delivered but amount to nothing more than caricature, embodying the melodramatic unreality of 50s cinema but denying the reality that is elsewhere achieved. Those scenes, coupled with the beautifully executed tableaux of the London Underground in song during The Blitz leave us stuck behind a layer of warping glass pressed up against an almost fetishized past. The image even exists in the film, in a shot where we see most clearly the romance between Freddie and Hestor from outside, through a pub’s window.
As a filmmaker it teaches me that performances are paramount and even though the actors may be great, the wrong mix of actors can be forever distancing. It says that you can aim for a fair realism but to do so would mean that references to older films that were more staged (the train platform reflection seems to recall Brief Encounters) will be jarring.
In the end I am left with a strange tumble of feelings. It is a lovingly shot vision of 1950s Britain, but suffers bizarrely and anachronistically from including places and objects from the time. It is perfectly acted and anchored by real honesty in performance, but suffers from unnatural pairings in the casting that is always distancing. It manages to recreate a deep honesty and emotion, which is what we should strive for, but for a large part, the film was simply boring. In the end I am glad that I didn’t follow Terrence Davies advice and I stayed to experience those moments of truth and beauty.