Think of post-war Britain and an archive of stock images springs to mind. There was the tyranny of the rationing card and the pile of rubble down the road that used to be a neighbour’s house. There were widows, orphans and military veterans. Cigarettes were a stylish release from the everyday gloom, rather than a health risk. Pubs were indispensable social hubs full of heart warming camaraderie and spontaneous singing.
Life in Britain after the eventual triumph of 1945 then, trudged on as if viewed through a sepia lens. In short, all was brown. Dresses, walls, shirts, cars, pubs, drinks, underwear, sheets, food, packaging and carpets, were all various shades of drab. Surely, despite the truth underlining it, this clichéd view of how things were then must be a gross simplification? Apparently no, according to director Terence Davies, that was just how it was. Speaking in an interview from The Deep Blue Sea’s special features, he claims that you only ever saw primary colours on particular sweet wrappers, along with the occasional glimpse of red when someone got engaged.
Davies has been widely praised for his total understanding of post-war Britain. He lived through it in his formative years and talks about personal memories in the interview on the DVD. He has also expressed his knowledge of the subject numerous times on film, in fictitious and factual form. Despite The Deep Blue Sea being an adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, Davies’ own independent influences are evident throughout. At times these directorial flights of fancy give the film a lift, but at others they feel like thoroughly artificial flourishes that deflate the drama.
Much of The Deep Blue Sea is told in flashback as its protagonist, Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer, recovers from an attempted suicide attempt. Initially we are wrapped up in the mood of the story and Davies does appear to have a masterful command over the details of the period. Quickly though, the background to Hester’s affair with Tom Hiddleston’s pilot Freddie Page becomes extremely tiresome. There is the odd interesting flashpoint, such as a quietly dramatic dinner with Hester’s mother-in-law. Here, Hester is lectured on the downsides of passion, whilst her husband, Simon Russell Beale’s much older judge, looks on passively. Hester defiantly stands her ground, convinced of the importance of excitement in such a dull world. She does not hate her husband; in fact they mostly get on well and share platonic affection. But Hester craves something more in her life.
That something more turns out to be a younger man, and perhaps the sex such a man can supply on demand. Hiddleston is handsome and charming, pulling off a decent impression of a restless RAF chap. It’s easy enough to see why Weisz jumps for him over Russell Beale. However, the supposed passion of their affair never really comes across. This might be because of the sensibilities of the time. Or it might be because of what happens in the final part of the film.
I was very tempted to write off The Deep Blue Sea as tasteful melodrama until its climax. For all the praise heaped on the performances of Weisz and Hiddleston, they appeared to be sporadically brilliant, but more often ridiculous. Hiddleston’s pompous pilot was 90% impersonation, 10% acting. Weisz’s Hester was beautiful but unrealistically pathetic. Then a shouting match outside a pub saves The Deep Blue Sea from drowning in its period features. The argument between the lovers is so loud and fierce that it makes up for many of the terrible lines in the script. This is not just because we finally see some drama in drab 50s London, but also because the narrative finally gets an injection of believable characterisation.