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The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Posted by keith1942 on January 21, 2012

The director, Terence Davies, on set.

 

2011 saw the centenary of the birth of Terence Rattigan, one of the most important dramatists in British theatre in the C20th. There were a number of revivals of his plays, and interestingly, a new film adaptation of his celebrated The Deep Blue Sea. The play was first produced in London in 1952, with a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft and Kenneth More. More was also in the 1954 film version. This was adapted by Rattigan himself, directed by Anatole Litvak for London Films, and shot in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. Kenneth More played the part of Freddie Page both on stage and on screen: but Vivien Leigh replaced Peggy Ashcroft as Hester Collyer for the film.

The play follows what are called the classical unities: “The action passes during the course of a day in September [morning, afternoon, evening] in the sitting room of a furnished flat in the north-west of London.” It is number 35, a large house at the end of a row of terraces where Mrs Elton and her sick husband let out furnished rooms to lodgers. Hester lives here with Freddie Page after leaving her husband Sir William Collyer, a judge. On this day Hester is discovered lying in front of an unlit gas fire, having attempted suicide. Over the three acts we learn about her affair with Freddie, her relationships with her separated husband, and something of the other people in the house.

The play’s title comes from lines of dialogue spoken by Hester to Mrs Elton shortly after her suicide attempt.

“Mrs Elton (Angrily.) Whatever possessed you to do a dreadful thing like that?

Pause

Hester. (Lying back with her eyes closed.) The devil I suppose.

Mrs Elton. I should just think it was. Are you a Catholic?

Hester. (Sleepily) No. I didn’t mean that kind of devil. Or is it the same kind? Anyway when you’re between any kind of devil and the deep blue sea, the deep blue sea sometimes looks very inviting. It did last night.”

[Later in the play we discover that Hester’s father was a minister].

Three characters are especially important: Mrs Elton, the Landlady: Philip Welch, a married lodger living upstairs: and Mr Miller, who works as a bookie’s runner [an illegal activity in this period] but who has unexplained medical experience. Freddie’s friend and colleague Jackie Jackson also has a significant scene. By evening Hester has arrived at an another crossroads in her life, paralleling that between her and Sir William a year earlier.

Miller is a key role in the play. It seems that he was a doctor in the past, but was struck off for an unexplained offence. Mrs Elton calls him when they discover the unconscious Hester: he provides some treatment for the invalid Mr Elton. He not only provides medical assistance for Hester but advice seemingly based on long and rich experience. Late in the play it is at least in part his prompting that leads to Hester’s final parting from Freddie.

There have been a number of successful and critically praised theatrical productions. And BBC Television and radio have also featured productions of Rattigan’s work including this play. The DVD Box Set produced for the centenary by the BBC features a 1994 Television production: an adaptation of a successful West End Revival featuring Penelope Wilton, Ian Holm and Colin Firth.

As is mostly the case, each production brings an emphasis and interpretation to different aspects of the play: and casting also adds its own inflection. It is important to note that the part of Hester Collyer is a sought after character part for actresses, and has been interpreted by a number of very fine performers. With the 2011 film the ‘voice’ of Rattigan is inflected not only by the cast and crew but also by an equally authoritative authorial voice, this time of British film.

What I remember of the 1954 film [currently unavailable in any format] was that the role of Mr Miller was increased. This was probably in part due to the casting of Eric Portman in the role: but was also likely emphasis of one plot theme for a cinema audience. Kenneth Moore was ideal as the slightly feckless Freddie. And the character crossed over with a number of other film characters, ex-wartime heroes who found themselves unable to settle in the change world of post-war peace.

The 2011 film adaptation also displays these types of influences, but importantly it also brings the influence of Terence Davies, an artist whose authorial presence in cinema is as strong as was Rattigan’s in theatre. Apparently Davies was offered the opportunity to remake The Browning Version. He says he had only seen the films of The Browning Version and another Rattigan adaptation, Separate Tables. Since both were fine films he did not think there was a point in a remake. He says that he then read the Rattigan ‘canon’, though [slightly contradictory] he also recalls that his mother took him to see The Deep Blue Sea. Of course, Rattigan and Davies share both their first or Christian names and a common sexual orientation. In other ways their backgrounds are remarkably different. Rattigan came from a family on the periphery of the upper middle classes, and a slightly dishabille one at that. His father was something of a philanderer, and his brother died in the First World War. And the family was liberal and vaguely Anglican. Davies comes from a Roman Catholic Liverpool family, with ten children. Yet both situations shared the repression that accompanied homosexuality in the earlier periods. Rattigan was actively gay and suffered from the public homophobia: Davies situation seems to be as much about religion as the public mores. Finally, both were [are] extensively read, in theatre, literature and film.

Davies’ film preserves the temporal unity of the play in the present [though we now get a night, day, and following night], but adds a series of flashbacks. Some of these present events that were described in the play through dialogue: some add additional material to the plot and characters. The spatial unity is extended with exterior scenes outside the lodging house: in the street, in a public house: and in the flashbacks in a number of locations. The main set, Hester’s and Freddie’s flat, is fairly close those presented in theatrical productions: “It is a big room for it is on the first floor [now the second floor] of a large and gloomy Victorian mansion, converted to flats after World War I, but it has an air of dinginess, …”.

Hester and William dine with his mother.

Some of the flashbacks present material that one character recounts to another in the dialogue of the play. Thus in the original Hester tells Sir William, when he visits her bedsit after the suicide attempt, about the point at which her affair with Freddie started. In the film we actually see the pair, on the veranda at the Sunningdale Golf Club. Other flashbacks add both characters and events to the plot. Thus in the film version we see the newly married William and Hester visiting his mother  [At this point William is a ‘silk’: the knighthood comes later when he is elevated to a High Court Judge]. His mother is affluent and extremely dominant. And she disproves when Hester displays some of the attributes of a modern woman. William is clearly in the thrall of his mother. Thus in the film he appears to be a rather weak character: very different from the way Ian Holm played Sir William in the BBC production. In a parallel manner, Freddie as played by Tom Hiddleston is also differentiated. There is a sense of a Hester acting as a mother figure for him. The placing of Hester between an older and younger man is there in Rattigan, but seems much more emphatic in the Davies version.

There is an important plot point concerning Mrs Elton and Hester. A plot point early on is that Mrs Elton is aware of Hester’s marriage to Sir William Collyer, even though she now passes as Mrs Page. She tells Philip how:

“I don’t know her real husband. And what I do know I promised faithfully I’d never tell a living soul. It was all because I picked up her ration book one day, and then she told me straight out quite simply all about it – how she hadn’t been able to get herself a divorce. Poor lamb – she thought Mr. Elton would turn her out. I found her that evening packing her things. I told her not to be silly. As if I’d tell Mr. Elton a thing like that. It’s none of his business, or mine, or anyone else’s, come to that.” The comment could equally apply to the personal sexual lives of Rattigan and Davies, and the latter makes this slightly more pointed in the film. Again we have a flashback depicting the scene, with Mrs Elton ending her response with the words, ‘what people do in private …is best left there.’

The way the film extends the spatial world is important; several of the incidents, which occur off-stage, are now depicted scenes. In particular, after an argument caused by Freddie finding the suicide letter, he goes out. Later Hester follows him to a public house where he is drinking with his friend Jackie. [In the play he goes off to a drinking club and later a pub]. There is a confrontation in the bar, and then a full-fledged argument in the street. The arguments, and Jackie’s ineffectual interventions, are very much as in the play. But the whole sequence has a particular feel through the use of mise en scène, camera and sound. The opening of the pub scene shows a bar full of mainly working class people singing along to a radio broadcast of ‘Anytime You’re Feeling Lonely’. The scene is fairly naturalistic but has a slightly stylised feel. This is strengthened following the street argument: as Hester turns home alone. As she walks away from the camera, there is a rare accompaniment of music on the soundtrack.

There are several sequences in public houses, both in the flashbacks and in the additional current scenes. The first time we see Hester with Freddie is in the flashback at Sunningdale. Next they meet outside a pub or bar in London. This is when the affair proper commences: later in the bar Freddie kisses her, and they dance to another of the film’s theme songs, ‘Remember That You Belong to Me’. All these sequences have a lustrous feel, as do the two other flashbacks when we see Freddie and Hester drinking with Jackie and his wife Liz. This is a combination of the mise en scène, the camera work and the colour saturation in the image.

Hester, Freddie and Jackie at the bar.

The sound reinforces this nostalgic feel. In the pub scenes we hear popular songs from the period, like ‘Remember …’ and ‘Anytime …’. Elsewhere there are snatches of radio music. Other sounds are street noises like traffic or children playing. All these sounds are diegetic. However, carefully placed in the film are a series of musical extracts from Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, opus 14. This is an intensely romantic piece, and there are passages of solo violin that generate an intense emotional feel. The music is used mostly for the flashbacks: it accompanies the voice-over of Hester reading her suicide letter: and it swells in volume in the series of scenes of Hester and Freebie’s developing affair. We seem to hear it in the scene when Freddie returns from Sunningdale, but it become apparent that this is a radio broadcast, as Freddie switches the set over to the Light Programme.

Whilst the music is powerful and emotional, much of the film’s soundtrack is extremely quiet. There are recurring moments of real silence. Terence Davies [in an interview for Film 4] commented: ‘silences can be like music … unbearable, literally unbearable … what’s on the soundtrack … people are always walking away from you, and there is something incredibly sad about footsteps heard in a house or someone singing far away ..’

The use of Samuel Barber’s Concerto is especially powerful in a sequence where Hester, after the row with Freddie, walks home. We have two short flashbacks depicting their strained relationship and then she phones Freddie from traditional red telephone box. She pleads with him to come and collect his things in person. He puts the phone down on Hester. She then descends into an underground station and stands on the edge of the platform. There is a further flashback; also added by Davies. It is the war years during an air raid. People are sheltering in the underground station, some on the lines, some standing on the platform, some sitting. A man sings ‘Molly Malone’ and the majority of people join in the choruses. Meanwhile the camera tracks along the platform: whilst the décor and costumes are naturalistic, the stance of the characters seems very stylised. Near the end of the platform we discover Sir William and Hester, standing close together facing each other. The scene seems filled with nostalgia for those years. In addition Hester’s hair is pinned up; in the present and in the flash backs with Freddie it is down. Moreover, it seems to have been cut shorter since the wartime sequence. Women’s hair is often an important signifier in films: in particular loose, untied hair is often associated with a degree of sexual freedom or fulfilment.

Back in the present a tube train rushes by. The scene is redolent of a similar sequence in the classic Brief Encounter (1945). Celia Johnson’s character [Laura Jesson] stands on the edge of a railway platform with an express rushing by and the accompanying music, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, powers on the soundtrack. Barber’s Concerto fulfils a parallel function in the sequence with Hester. Davies has a strongly professed love of melodrama and the crossover between these two films in potent. It may be that in The Deep Blue Sea we get a complete performance of Barber’s Concerto [running for 24 minutes] as a parallel for the complete performance of the Rachmaninov Concerto in Brief Encounter. This set of romantic emotions is one of the major differences between the film version and the original Rattigan play.

Hester on the underground platform

In David Lean’s Brief Encounter Laura does not consummate her affair with a married doctor [Trevor Howard]: in The Deep Blue Sea film we actually see a scene of sexual intercourse between Hester and Freddie. However, Hester still displays the romantic yearnings of Laura. In Brief Encounter most of the film is a flashback ‘dreamt’ by Laura as she listens to the Rachmaninov on Radio 3. This is the radio station Hester also listens to in the film. And her flashbacks, solely concerned with her love affair with Freddie, seem to display the same romanticism as Laura’s flashback. In both films the flashback/s could almost be dreams or fantasies. And whilst the trajectory of the characters are different, at the end of both films the heroines face up to renunciation of their illicit passions.

The Rattigan play presents a Hester who is more obsessive than romantic. Moreover, she has a dimension that is missing in the film. Early on in the play we discover that Hester has taken up painting since her separation. William, on one of his visits, offers to buy a painting: but Hester insists on giving him this as a present. Later in the visit William asks about her future?

“Hester: I’ll stay on here until I can find something else. I’ll try and take a studio if I can – then I’ll be able to work harder. If I can’t sell my paintings, I’ll get a job –“

Rattigan thus presents Hester not just as a smitten woman, but one taking some control over her own life. Davies’ film focuses on the sexual and romantic impact of Hester throwing over the traces, but Rattigan suggests the economic aspect. She is, in effect, an example of a new, modern woman in more ways than one.

There is another important change from play to film. This is in the character of Miller: whose role is reduced considerably in the film, [as is also Philip]. In the third act Miller again visits Hester and he advises her: “You can still find some purpose in living.” He offers to buy a painting: Hester says it should be a gift, but he leaves some money anyway. This is followed by the last appearance of Freddie. In the play he does not stay overnight, as he does in the film. At the end of a short scene he tells her:

“I’m going to miss you, Hes.”

(After a moment, Freddie releases her, goes to the door, and turns round, still with a faint air of bewildered appeal.)

Hester: (Loudly and clearly). Goodbye.

(Freddie stares at her, turns, and shuffles out …)”

The point is made even more of in the 1954 film version, where at one point Miller tells Hester that ‘she is the stronger character.’ This emphasis is absent in the new film. Of course, all the versions rely on actors, who can bring their own interpretations to characters. But the accumulation of changes round Hester does seem to produce a different stance on the relationship and its closure.

To try and illuminate the set of values that the 2011 film seems to offer, I want to focus finally on the ending of the film. This is actually a reprise of the opening. The film commences with the credits on a luminous blue background: in fact like a deep blue sea. We hear Hester’s voice reading out lines from the letter to Freddie. The opening shot is in the evening: it shows a ruined building in shadows, a bonfire burns. The camera pans along a fence covered with corrugated iron. It arrives at the end house in a row of large terraces. Mrs Elton appears, putting out the milk bottles. Philip is standing outside the basement flat, smoking a cigarette. The camera cranes up the house, pass the window of Miller on the first floor, listening to the BBC. It cranes on to the second floor where Hester stands framed in a window. There is beautiful reverse hot. Hester turns and in a series of shot, separated by ellipsis of black frames; she pulls the curtain, puts a rug against the door, picks up some coins and puts them in the gas meter, lies down in front of the fire and turns on the gas. The flashbacks commence.

At the film ending, it is morning as when Freddie leaves. Hester once again puts coins in the gas meter. Rather than lighting the gas, in a close up the fire appears to light itself.  She goes to the window. A reverse shot take us outside and the camera cranes back down the house, pass Miller with his radio: Philip leaves for work: Mrs Elton collects the fresh milk bottles. The camera now pans back along the fence to the ruined building. It is a Chinch and two children are playing in the porch. They leave and the camera tracks in on the church. The credits begin and we hear the solo violin from Barber’s Concerto.

Churches and religions ministers are a recurring point in the story. The ruin, and indeed the fence, speaks of the remains from the war years. It is as if we have not yet emerged from that epoch-making event. At one point in the film Hester tells William that Freddie “does it because his life stopped in 1940. He loved 1940, you know. There were some like that. He’s never been really happy since he left the RAF.” Samuel Barber’s concerto was composed in 1939 and first performed in 1941: the same period. It would appear that in the film that Hester has herself ‘caught’ this infection. Indeed, like the nation in some ways at the end of the 1940s she is still to emerge from the war years. The ration book is symptomatic here, as one critic commented, ‘soldering on!’ And this sense of still living in those past times is one that is fairly powerful in other films by Terence Davies, especially Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).

I have wondered what Terence Rattigan would have made of this new film version of one of his finest plays. He clearly was not averse to changes to his work for the medium: and I think he would have admired the style of the film, and the use of flashbacks. However he was much stricter about the nature and intent of his main characters, and I think he would have been far less satisfied with the 2011 Laura. What we have is a very fine film, but one in which the director has, whilst retaining much of the original, significantly altered the meaning that resides in the central character. This is as entitled, but I think Davies’ Hester does less justice to the ‘new women’ of the 1950s.

Extracts from The Collected Plays of Trence Rattigan.

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