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So entirely immersive is Terence Davies‘ desire to recreate and analyze the ethos of post-World War II Britain that not only has he fulfilled his ambition to refashion Terence Rattigan‘s The Deep Blue Sea, but he has created a theoretical sequel to Noel Coward and David Lean‘s Brief Encounter in the bargain. As intensely personal and deeply felt as it is, however, Davies’ attempt to breathe new life into Rattigan’s 1952 play is a rather bloodless, suffocating thing, lent tragic passion more by its use of Samuel Barber‘s Violin Concerto than by anything achieved by his star Rachel Weisz and her leading man. Limited release in sophisticated world markets awaits.
The author of such well-carpentered post-war studies of English repression as The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and Separate Tables, Rattigan passed out of fashion in the 1960s but, after his death in 1977, his reputation began a rebirth with Karel Reisz‘s London revival of The Deep Blue Sea, which centers upon a woman, pushing past 40, who leaves her wealthy older husband for her first passionate relationship. The cast of the original London production was headed by Peggy Ashcroft, while Margaret Sullavan starred in the Broadway version in 1953 and, two years later, Vivien Leigh appeared in the somewhat sluggish but still involving first film version directed by Anatole Litvak.
In fact, the beginnings of the 1955 screen adaptation and this new one are virtually identical, crane shots that start on the street and move up and into the window of the modest rented flat of Hester Collyer (Weisz), who has just stated in voice-over that, “This time I really do want to die.” In the original, Hester is found, alive, after her suicide attempt but, here, we watch as she turns on the gas and waits for her misery to end.
Davies then flashes back to a scene that essentially recreates the ending of Brief Encounter; Hester sits, entirely bored, at home with her older husband, high court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), as she silently wells while up thinking about her young lover, the dashing former RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston).
As Hester recovers from her desperate act, she is tended to by neighbors, including a would-be doctor with a mysterious past, while summoning memories of her sexual awakening, leaving her caring but unexciting husband, putting up with Freddie’s emotional wavering and eventual decision to move on, and Hester’s consideration of another suicide attempt.
Davies, whose most important previous films (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) are also strong evocations of England in the ’40s and ’50s, has turned Rattigan’s play into a memory piece, filtered through the ever-present cigarette smoke of the time, one that, for all its dramatic specificity, carries certain reverberations concerning the state of Great Britain after the war, with its rampant shortages and uncertainty about the future.
By reconstituting the work’s structure, Davies has eliminated a good deal of exposition and has also ignored the scenes created to open up the previous film version. But to a work about people fearful of self-expression and emotional exposure, the director has added a repressive layer of his own; when he shows Hester and Freddie naked in bed early on, it’s almost as if he’s displaying two alabaster statues, so inanimate are they. Later, even at the height of their affair, they seem almost afraid to speak, making for very long pauses and hardly stirring viewer conviction in the depth and future of the relationship. The hesitations and uncertainties create a good deal of dead air, which lead directly to dullness and boredom.
Restraint and quiet suffering don’t seem to come naturally to Weisz; her performance suggests she’s trying to give Davies what he wants but isn’t one hundred per cent sure about it herself. Kenneth More repeated his West End performance as Freddie opposite Leigh in the first film and brought real gusto to it, demonstrating why this older woman would be attracted to such a dynamic fellow while also bringing his doubts to life. Hiddleston reveals little of this and unfortunately leaves Freddie a relative cipher. Beale, only nine years older than Weisz in real life, looks twice that here but gives fine shadings to the role of the insulted, put out husband. One of the film’s best scenes involves a revelatory visit the husband and wife make to the proper home of the former’s haughty, condescending mother.
Just as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 drenched Brief Encounter in the soaring exaltation of a grand passion that could never be consummated, so does Barber’s sublimely mournful Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 amplify a thwarted love here. As he has done before, Davies also uses popular music of the time to pointed effect, the most prominent song on the track being Jo Stafford‘s You Belong to Me. James Merifield‘s production design, Ruth Myers costumes and Florian Hoffmeister‘s cinematography all contribute positively to Davies’ dreamy period evocation.
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