Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz as Freddie and Hester
It feels right that The Deep Blue Sea’s plot should remind us that no one can ever claim exclusive ownership of the things that they say or write. After all, writer-director Terence Davies’s eloquence as an artist often stems from his decision to reissue other peoples’ words and images from his own mouth. Frequent cast performances of mid-twentieth-century popular songs help Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) to create a luminous autobiographical portrait of private and public experience in Forties and Fifties Liverpool. Painstaking editorial choreography allows Of Time and the City (2008) to bring forth new (and often unexpected) meaning from a vast archive of documentary footage shot in and around Davies’s native city throughout the last century. The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000) are both literary adaptations, and Davies has for more than a decade now sought to film the Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932). In bringing English dramatist Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea to the big screen, this filmmaker therefore persists with his preferred methods of working in multiple ways. Davies’s new movie represents a return to 1950s Britain, the time and place that engages his imagination and passion like no others. Perhaps more fundamentally yet, The Deep Blue Sea, like each of its maker’s five previous features, also blurs the boundary between adaptation and appropriation to a remarkable degree.
Rattigan’s original story pivots on the inability of its central character to control the consequences of her own written words once they fall into another person’s hands. In early 1950s London, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) tries to kill herself, unwilling to live with the knowledge that her lover Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a decorated but now-unemployed WWII fighter pilot, does not share the overwhelming passion he has sparked within her. Indeed, Hester’s feelings are so strong that she has embraced poverty and social marginality in order to pursue them. Having abandoned a luxurious (but also sexless) marriage to wealthy barrister Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), Hester now lives a near-penniless, clandestine existence, posing as Freddie’s wife in a dingy rented apartment tucked away in a still-bombed-out suburb of the British capital. When a weekend golfing engagement drives Hester’s birthday from her heedless lover’s mind, she leaves a suicide note on the fireplace, swallows a bottle of aspirin, turns on the gas, and lies down to die.
But this act piles further misery upon Hester, rather than releasing her from that which she already endures. A returning Freddie accidentally finds the note but refuses to return it unopened. In his view, “It belongs to me... it had my name on it.” Wounded and enraged by the letter’s contents, Freddie resolves to leave Hester, and in fact does so within the space of a day. Meanwhile, Hester’s concerned landlady, Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), telephones Sir William to apprise him of his estranged wife’s whereabouts and plight. Hester is thus forced to spend a traumatic twenty-four hours clinging vainly to a departing lover while fending off a returning spouse. She declines to go back to William, but Freddie refuses to go on with her. Alone in her shabby flat, Hester again turns on the gas as a new day dawns. This time, however, she makes to light the fire rather than trying to extinguish her own existence. By ending thus, both Davies’s film and Rattigan’s play imply that Hester will somehow survive, emotionally and physically, the heartbreaking aftermath of her socially courageous attempt to find romantic fulfillment.
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