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A Cinematic Revival of Britain’s Most Popular Mid-Century Playwright

What does “deep blue” mean in this film, or in the Terence Rattigan play that has prompted a movie from Terrence Davies sixty years later? Deep blue is no small matter; it’s not just Miles Davis doing “Kind of Blue,” William Gass’s book On Being Blue, a nickname for IBM, or Lucian Freud’s painting, “Man in a Blue Scarf.” Four out of ten people name blue as their favorite color. So I have always wanted more from The Deep Blue Sea than it ever delivers.

Rattigan was the leading English playwright during the war and into the early 1950s, before the disruptions of John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He was a paragon for those who preferred theatre genteel and conventional. Rattigan admitted that he wrote for “Aunt Edna,” ladies of a certain age and class looking for an evening (or a matinee) at the theatre in which resignation and repressed emotions were tastefully condoned by starry players: French Without Tears (1936), a hit when the playwright was twenty-five; Flare Path (1942); The Winslow Boy (1946); The Browning Version (1948); The Deep Blue Sea (1952); The Sleeping Prince (1953); Separate Tables (1954).

It was an illustrious career from which Rattigan made a lot of money. His plays were invariably filmed—The Sleeping Prince became The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier (now known for its “weekend with”). He was knighted for his services to the theatre, but when Sir Terence died in 1977, only 66-years-old, his light had gone out. The rebellion in British theatre that started with Look Back in Anger (1956) alarmed Aunt Edna but it aroused a new generation ready for unbridled emotion and unease in its theatre. Rattigan’s final plays were the work of a man whose confidence was draining away. But in the last few years there has been a Rattigan reappraisal in London—there was an acclaimed revival of Flare Path (about bomber pilots at a wartime base) and now there is this movie, initiated by the Terence Rattigan Trust, with Terrence Davies making the film, on a modest budget but with a free hand, no matter that Davies had not made a feature film since The House of Mirth ( 2000), adapted from Edith Wharton. That lost money in an era when doing that was one of the more reliable signs of quality. The House of Mirth is a very good picture, reason enough to have high hopes for The Deep Blue Sea. But Terence Rattigan was no Edith Wharton.

The play opens as Hester Collyer has tried to kill herself in the flat she shares with Freddie, a burnt-out fighter pilot from the war and a drunk. To be with him, Hester has left her husband, William, an older man and a judge. She knows the affair with Freddie is crashing, and she can’t see what to do with her life. In England in 1952, as elsewhere, that helplessness was understandable. Women dissatisfied with life felt trapped and powerless: My mother was in that predicament, and she stayed in an absurd marriage.

That contract is harder to make convincing today. When the play opened, Peggy Ashcroft did Hester, a great actress but not a famous beauty. The young actor Kenneth More was Freddie, and Eric Portman was William. There was no sex in the play, though it must have been felt that Hester had broken free for that, and out of the desire to find a fuller life. Now, in 2011, Davies has cast Rachel Weisz as Hester and put her in a studiously drab world of color-drained art design. She and Freddie have sex, but for a modern film that only makes the situation more mysterious and caught in the past. Rachel Weisz is not simply beautiful; she is ravishing, and unmistakably intelligent. Davies has asked her to hold still in long, pensive close-ups; she is forever gazing out of the window at the sad street; she is acting as if her dismay will turn on the gas.

Weisz is helplessly brave, active and independent—witness her work in The Constant Gardener and The Whistleblower. Insisting on her victimhood makes her monotonous and even a pain in the neck. If you modernized the story, setting it in today’s London, no one would believe in Hester’s fatal passion for Freddie, or her succumbing to the trap. Freddie is neither appealing nor interesting, and never has been. So this has to be a period piece because of its attitudes, not its wretched furniture. Davies (born in 1945) has made it clear how deeply the social and emotional restrictiveness of England affected him. His best work is Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), less developed dramas than fragmented reveries in which music, camera movement, dowdy décor and a child’s point of view are the soul of the films.

With The House of Mirth, Davies took on a coherent and despairing narrative and succeeded. In 1905, Lily Bart is a victim of the same closed world that surrounds Hester. But she fights harder and suffers a graver fate. It is a story about class, sex and money that leaves no doubt about Lily’s self-destructiveness. This was enhanced by the fatalistic and un-self-pitying work of Gillian Anderson as Lily. Alas, the suicidal attempt in this Deep Blue Sea seems unearned and indulgent, despite Weisz’s diligent presence and Davies’ studied camerawork—not just in lighting, but in movement and long-held shots.

It’s a well-made film and some critics have been more moved by it than I was. When the first movie was made (with Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More), there was no doubt about Leigh’s beauty but still no sex (it was only 1955). When the play was done on Broadway, Margaret Sullavan was Hester, and it flopped. In the years since, on television or stage revivals, it was done by Karl Reisz, with Colin Firth as Freddie, Penelope Wilton as Hester and Ian Holm as William. Virginia McKenna was Hester in a 1974 BBC television version.

I suspect Terence Davies was uneasy with the Rattigan play: He has made many changes. He introduces a public house sing-along, a Davies touchstone. He shows white bodies in sex (though that always looks the same); he has given William a disapproving mother; and he has reduced the character of Miller, who lives in the same lodging house as Hester. He’s a doctor who has been struck off, and for Rattigan he was a kindred spirit for Hester to talk to. Davies found the Miller character implausible—but he does not realize the same predicament of our belief with the bright, questing eyes of Rachel Weisz.

There was a bolder way to go. Rattigan was gay (when that was illegal), and some commentators wondered whether this play was a metaphor for a homosexual relationship. There is a similar line of interpretation with A Streetcar Named Desire. Terence Davies might have acted on that possibility. Suppose the unhappy Hester has an affair with a woman, not just a boozy ex-flier, but someone working in a larger, more active worldx—a journalist, a busy doctor, a teacher, someone who offers more than sex. Someone who urges Hester to get a job as well as a lover. That might begin to be interesting. As it is, the movie is an exquisite period piece, slow and dank, and unduly persuaded that it’s rendering a classic, instead of a melodrama from the tense 1950s, waiting for so many bombs to go off. If the film’s going to invoke “the deep blue sea,” it has to feel the ecstatic challenge of swimming or drowning in blue.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.