Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Davies Adapts Rattigan: The Deep Blue Sea

It seems unfathomable in hindsight, but after leading the United Kingdom through its darkest hour, the British electorate turned out Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Of course, Sir Winston would eventually return to Number 10. For one raffish ex-RAF pilot, the Second World War represented his finest hour and his post-war prospects are rather anemic. A married woman has grand ambitions to make a future with him, but it is not be in Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hester Collyer is married to Sir William Collyer, a man of means and position. She is forty years old in an era when forty was considerably older than it is now. Perhaps she should be grateful for her comfortable life, but she is eager to chuck it away for Freddie Page. He cut quite the heroic figure during the war and Collyer still sees it in him.

For a brief period, everything is lovely between them. However, Page is quickly put off by the intensity of her ardor. It is all rather tacky to a hedonist like him. After his passive-aggressive contempt drives her to attempt suicide, Page has had enough. However, Collyer is not ready to let him go.

Arguably, nobody has a better feel for the post-war milieu than Davies. He and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (whose credits include AMC’s The Prisoner reboot) create the dark malaise-ridden British equivalent of a series of Norman Rockwell paintings. It is a world of drab browns and soft incandescent lighting that invites nostalgia for an era of pessimism.

The problem with Sea is that Simon Russell Beale’s Sir William comes across as such a dashed decent fellow (though his mother is another story altogether) and Tim Hiddleston’s Page is so churlish, it is hard to believe the adulterous wife is not considerably more torn between the two. Furthermore, it is a bit hard to believe Rachel Weisz’s Collyer cannot envision other options besides those two, even during a time of pronounced economic recession.

Even if the melodrama does not quite click, Davies pulls viewers along forcefully, largely with his masterful use of music. He stages two scenes of communal pub singing that brilliantly convey the solidarity it instilled in most working class patrons, as well as the loneliness and alienation it engendered with those who felt they were on the outside looking in. Indeed, there is no missing the prominently mixed music, including Jo Stafford’s early 1950’s rendition of “You Belong to Me” and Samuel Barber’s elegiac Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which serves as the film’s primary soundtrack.

Davies anchors Sea so effectively in its time and place, viewers will come to understand how their social environment bred their hang-ups and forgive accordingly. Still, their indulgent brooding will try contemporary sensibilities (and intellectually seem somewhat out of place in such a period of reduced expectations and compromise). A handsome and wearying film, Sea is recommended for admirers of the Merchant-Ivory canon when it opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Paris Theatre and the Angelika Film Center.