By Tom Nixon
Compared by some to Wong Kar-Wai for the way the camera glides and swoons around its lost heroine, the meat of Terence Davies’ 2011 romantic melodrama The Deep Blue Sea reminds me more of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, or a reverse A Streetcar Named Desire where the woman suffers not because the world’s leaving her behind, but because it refuses to catch up to her blaze of desire. Even so, Wong may be the only other living director as equipped to stir up conventional period pieces into a swirl of rapture and despair, and Davies’ revival of this mannered, restrained post-war Britain is refreshingly awash in amber and ocean blue.
Rachel Weisz’s modernised Hester sticks out as the only thing in this lovingly detailed memoryscape not defined in relation to the war; she’s interminably present in a time capsule smoky with nostalgia. This is never emphasised more than when she alone fails to inhabit a rendition of ‘You Belong To Me’ with any gusto during a pub sing-along, except perhaps by that final shot, as she opens the curtains to take in a blasted, quietly dignified London that’s not her own. Hester is aching for something more from her affair with Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie Page, a decorated Royal Air Force pilot still processing his experiences of the war, but it’s doubtful that Hester’s love is for Freddie himself so much as the ideal object of all-consuming passion she has required him to represent from the beginning — if only to escape a world and a time when “only men do the loving”, and not to women like Hester.
Alas, there’s no such escape; not from between the devil and the deep blue sea. It’s 1950, and the only mistresses to whom these men will commit their whole selves lie in the past, be they battleaxe mother figures or the “fear and excitement” of the war. The original play of Terence Rattigan’s was widely interpreted as a thinly disguised cry of repressed homosexual angst with Hester as his stand-in, and Weisz successfully exudes tightly-coiled anguish as her needs prove incomprehensible to men like Freddie, who stops spouting distancing clichés for a moment to admit his dreadful fear of naked emotion, shortly before fleeing to the bottle. The rest of manhood here is no better suited — all haughty sanctimony, guarded enthusiasm, juvenile banter and drunken reminiscences.
Still, while Rattigan clearly empathised with Hester, scornful of juvenile men unworthy of the maturity of her passions, I wonder if Davies’ allegiances are as clear given the way his films linger on the past with much of the same dizzy reverie that characterise Freddie’s memories of his beloved 1940. Freddie accuses Hester of being cool, calculated, manipulative, and despite the storm that so clearly seethes inside her his comment rings true; all is fair in love and war, and Hester fires upon the enemy that is male cowardice with as much disdainful cruelty as any soldier.
With that in mind, it may be that Hester is the one being left behind after all; a remnant of the war, a time of raw, unchecked emotion which the people around her are in the process of grieving and, ultimately, burying in the annals of history. Time has begun to cast a comforting smog about that memory — the whole thing’s shot like a dusty photograph — but Hester perpetually pierces it with her gaze, preserved in a moment of unfathomable vulnerability, highlighted by a visual analogy between a fleeting suicide fantasy and a memory of sheltering underground with her husband and a band of refugees (their chorus of ‘Molly Malone’ providing the film’s eerie highlight). Something inside her did die that day, perhaps the last flicker of love in her marriage; whatever it was, she emerged a ghost possessed of a boundless need, wandering a recoiling world that had nothing left to give.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.