The Deep Blue Sea (12A)

This wartime drama is just too understated, writes Ryan Gilbey.

The Deep Blue Sea (12A)
dir: Terence Davies

The Deep Blue Sea is a tale of two Terences: Rattigan, who wrote the 1952 play on which it is based, and Davies, who has adapted and directed this second film version. (The first, starring Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More, appeared in 1955.) Playwright and film-maker might have been paired up in the lonely hearts ads. Likes: repression, emotional brutality, the strangulated English class system. Dislikes: vulgarity. Only smokers need apply. The match is almost too exact, but that isn't what makes Davies's film a curious failure. His handling of the material raises two problematic questions. How can we appreciate the decay of a relationship when we have enjoyed no whiff of it in its perfumed prime? And how does a film about any life with a gaping hole at its core avoid vanishing into a corresponding void?

Early in The Deep Blue Sea, there is a version of the Psycho spiral shot, the one that rotates outwards from Janet Leigh's pupils after she has suffered an unsatisfactory bathroom experience sadly typical of the cut-price motel industry. In Davies's film, the camera floats above two lovers on a bed. Moving along their intertwined bodies, it turns in circles as though attached to a Spirograph, that evergreen toy that has long been the default gift when shopping for other people's children.

All the meaning and activity is held within the camera's movement. And, for the most part, that is where it remains confined throughout the film. The cinematography and the music (Samuel Barber's furious Violin Concerto) promise rapturous emotion. The director doesn't condescend to coax it out.

Making the beast with two backs while the camera hovers are Hester (Rachel Weisz) and Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Hester has abandoned her marriage to frolic with Freddie, a pilot whose response to the end of the war is to hit the sauce and relive his glory stories. Hester has knowingly jumped aboard a sinking ship, or a nose-diving plane, if you prefer. Her belief is that anything is better than boredom. And there's always the sex. As Dorothy put it in The Golden Girls: "How good is it? So good we named it." But what do you do afterwards, apart from play beggar-my-neighbour? Hester's answer is to try to gas herself in a bedsit that even Rigsby would have had condemned. One alternative would be to return to her husband, William (Simon Russell Beale). He's a good egg, but then who wants to marry an ovum? William's one visible flaw is a venomous mother (Barbara Jefford) who is greeted wherever she goes by audibly gnashing teeth and, in all likelihood, formerly untroubled souls hurling themselves in front of the nearest speeding Daimler. "Don't let Mother rile you," he advises Hester, which is like asking the tide to go kick its heels for a few hours. Mothers can be such a trial. See Psycho for further details.

This mother, who can turn the acceptance of a slice of Battenberg into a conversational flick-knife, has a warning: "Beware of passion. It always leads to something ugly." Well, The Deep Blue Sea isn't ugly. Its studied aesthetic is too powerfully mournful ever to curdle into nostalgia; Hester's blazing red raincoat aside, the colour scheme hints that the film's palette has been subject to wartime rationing. And the lighting is achingly exact: when Freddie visits Hester after her suicide attempt, the scene has that dull throb specific to any curtained room lit by underpowered lamps on a bright afternoon. A pretzel of cigarette smoke earns an adoring close-up.

As for Mother's warning about passion - well, there is a point at which understated becomes underdeveloped, and that point is this film. Even accounting for the story's sadomasochistic merry-go-round, where everyone hurts everyone else and nobody gets what they mistakenly believe they want, Davies hasn't shaped the material with enough force to suggest that anything very much is at stake. I know the rule is show, don't tell, but that still leaves room to show a bit more. All we see of the good times is Hester sitting in a chair, smiling at William. Then she's sitting in a chair, smiling at Freddie. There is so little context for these relationships that it's not facetious to assume that what Hester really gets off on is a nice comfy chair.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood