The Deep Blue Sea, English filmmaker Terence Davies' adaptation of English dramatist Terence Rattigan's 1952 play, is one of the year's richest films. But when it comes to movie criticism, "rich" is one of those terms, like "moving" or "lush" or "jaw-dropping," that may sound meaningful but is actually meaningless. In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell once condemned such hollow words by arguing that "the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different."
Since it's unwise to cross Orwell, I thought I'd offer two definitions of "richness" in the movies:
A visually rich film frequently provides moviegoers with thoughtfully composed, thought-provoking images. It also gives moviegoers plenty of time to look at and savor them. In the best passages of films like this, the primal pictorial pleasures of the moving image — light, color, bodies in motion — are emphasized. A rich literary film works in similar ways. It frequently provides its characters with thoughtfully composed, thought-provoking lines of dialogue. It also gives the viewer plenty of time to listen to and relish them. In the best passages of films like this, the consciously crafted charms of oral and written language — turns of phrase, tone of voice, the tension between words and feelings — are emphasized.
The Deep Blue Sea's sepia-toned color palette conceals a wide range of pictorial effects. Davies' gauzy photography, drifting camera, and precisely framed imagery transform Rattigan's melodramatic story about a love triangle between Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz, the best on-screen kisser in the movies), her successful husband Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), and her dashing, damaged lover Freddy (Tom Hiddleston) into a poetic meditation on the disastrous consequences of desire. In sequences like the one when Hester, fresh from a suicide attempt, blows some cigarette smoke that lingers in the window light of her cramped apartment, image, idea, and metaphor explode with the force of a muffled bomb blast.
Davies' adaptation of Rattigan's play is both obscure and direct, in keeping with its very 1950s-English stoicism. The key to the whole film slips out during a tense, passive-aggressive dinner Hester and William spend with William's terrible mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford), who cautions Hester to "beware of passion; it always leads to something ugly." She urges Hester to embrace "a guarded enthusiasm ... it's safer"; face nearly parallel to her dinner plate, Hester replies, "And much duller."
I'm sad that I can't share additional grand moments from the film, but one more example of Davies' cinematic precision and care should help you decide whether you want to sip this director's particular cup of tea. The penultimate encounter between Freddie and Hester occurs at dawn. As these two forceful personalities clash, Davies is sensitive enough to slightly change the amount of light in each shot to mimic the sunrise, so at the end of the sequence Hester is bathed in the rays of the new rising sun. Davies is one of the few filmmakers working today attentive to such a mundane miracle. He's made a great film.
The Deep Blue Sea
Opens Friday, May 4th