Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Best of 2012 In Review: The Deep Blue Sea

Adapted by the director from Terence Rattigan's eponymous 1952 play, Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (2011) opens in a procession of powerfully cinematic figures, from the filmmaker's Ophülsian (commencing) crane work to a breathy collection of cross-dissolves and fades that seem to inhale along with the on-screen heroine. As Rachel Weisz's Hester slips into a suicidal unconscious, Davies' film slides imperceptibly into Hester's recent fire-lit past, thereby initiating a Proustian temporality that will continue to obtain throughout the remainder of the filmmaker's highly refined reworking of Rattigan. With Samuel Barber's stringed Concerto sobbing along with the unhappily married lead, Davies cuts to the obsessed-over object of Hester's diffusely-lit memory, Tom Hiddleston's impeccably tailored, laddish combat veteran, Freddie Page. With their kiss - wrapped in the amber warmth of a London pub - becoming an almost gender-less knot of pale white flesh, Davies' camera circles above his adulterous pairing in the first of a set of similar rotations that will return the viewer back to Hester's receding present. It will remain for a sudden hard sound edit to snap Hester and the spectator back into the diegetic now, to break the narcotic spell of Davies' opening romantic salvo.

Through its masterful manipulations of space and time, light and sound, Davies' Deep Blue Sea beginning bolsters the filmmaker's already unimpeachable status as the very best that the British cinema currently has to offer. So too does the physical precision that Davies pulls out his performers, whether it is Sir William Collyer's (Simon Russell Beale) hovering hand that in the faintest measure of his all-but-absent sensuality makes next to no tactile contact with the surface beneath it, or the achingly beautiful rhythmic rise and fall of wife Hester's seizing chest. The Deep Blue Sea's feeling for gesture, in this respect, elicits comparisons to the extraordinary observational acumen of the director's Mizoguchian masterpiece The House of Mirth (2000), while the fragmented temporal structure of Davies' very great Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) returns in Hester's fluid subjectivity. Similarly present is the Liverpudlian Davies' pop sensibility, which as it happens belongs much more to The Deep Blue Sea's pre-rock-and-roll early fifties moment than to the 1960s British Invasion sound that Of Time and the City (2008) excoriates.

Davies' diegetic use of pop, in his signature sing-along format, serves to construct The Deep Blue Sea's proletarian public. In the film's first group sing, a collective public-house rendition of  "You Belong to Me," Davies establishes the class disparity that divides lovers Freddie and Hester, and which finally denies the latter full membership in the film's postwar community: where Freddie freely belts out the 1952 hit, Hester only sporadically mouths the familiar pop lyrics. However, amid the socially leveling experience of World War II bombardment, Hester and her husband Sir William are allowed temporary membership in London's closely knit public: in another of the film's fluid long-takes, Davies discloses the upper-class couple, huddled together on a populated tube platform, as they sing along with the Dublin street anthem, "Molly Malone." In this flashback-within-a-flashback, inaugurated by an architectural madeleine, Lord and Lady Collyer join an historical British public that is finally defined by a shared popular culture.

Even more than its carefully rendered class dynamics and its exceptional aesthetic sensitivity - save for the supremely focal remembered warmth of the postwar period's interior illumination and the dull morning light that stages the work's prodigious melancholy - The Deep Blue Sea emphasizes the staggering romantic commitment of Hester to her beloved Freddie, a love that Hiddleston's objet du désir ultimately refuses to reciprocate. Lady Hester risks everything for Freddie's occasional gift of himself - an offering that he only rarely extends to the endlessly devoted heroine. Hers is an absolute in passion that landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) nonetheless distinguishes from real love. (Mrs. Elton defines genuine love rather as wiping someone's ass to preserve their dignity.) For her cuckolded husband - whom it should be noted learns of the affair in a static, behind-the-back framing of Weisz that constructs an expectation of discovery - their story is fundamentally tragic, a worthy heir to the filmmaker's Ophülsian and Mizoguchian sources. For Hester, however, her great love of a man who does not share her feelings is merely "sad," not least of all as it proves an experience that can be overcome. Indeed, Davies ends with an emblem of perseverance: in a circular return to the film's nocturnal opening, the psychologically ruins of the Second World War are presented in the clear light of day, following an unexpected shift in Hester's heretofore gloomy disposition.

The Deep Blue Sea is currently available on the Netflix Instant streaming platform and on home video.   

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