Film review – The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

11 April 2012
The Deep Blue Sea: Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz)

Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz)

Set in London during the 1950s, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is emotionally not unlike the post-World War II bombed out and gutted city. She’s married to Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a respected judge and a good man, but their marriage is passionless. She’s been having an affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a troubled younger man who served during the war, but she knows he does not feel the intense love towards her that she feel towards him. As the title of the film suggests, she’s caught between two unpleasant options – the devil and the deep blue sea. However, this literal understanding of how the title matches the narrative of the film isn’t nearly as interesting as the idea that Hester takes an emotional journey during the film from suicidal depression to grief. Both are unpleasant, but while one is akin to an illness, one is a natural state of being that is an essential part of being alive. It is therefore fitting that the title only references the part of the famous idiom that evokes nature, since this new adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play by filmmaker Terence Davies is about recovery and regrowth for Hester and the city of London.

The Deep Blue Sea is also a film about memory, which is a concept that Davies has explored and represented throughout his career, most specifically in films about his childhood in Liverpool in post-World War II England. His short films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are impressionist autobiographical works and Of Time and the City (2008) is an experimental documentary. While Davies’s other films have been literary adaptations, The Deep Blue Sea best combines his representation of memory with a traditional narrative structure. The result is Davies’s finest film to date.

Memories of London during the blitz weave throughout the film to link the private and solitary emotional trauma experienced by Hester to the collective and shared trauma experienced by the people of London during the war. In one remarkable scene a long take pans across people sheltering on an underground train station platform; singing a popular song while the bombs fall above them. Popular music is used throughout The Deep Blue Sea to express the camaraderie and determination to maintain good spirits by the people of London during the war and re-build years, although in another scene Hester looks awkward as she struggles to join in with the sing-a-long. Surrounded by expressions of defiant good will and cheer, and needing to keep up appearances, she cannot express her anguish. While visually the film depicts her world as one of calm and order, Davies uses Samuel Barber’s 1939 ‘Violin Concerto’ to express her anguish with its dramatic and tumultuous string arrangement. It’s a very effective use of music, creating a soundtrack that is exclusively subjective to Hester.

The Deep Blue Sea also looks like a memory. Not only is it shot on 35mm film, which sadly in itself gives it the feel of a artefact from another era, but the soft focus and muted colours convey the impression of scenes that have not fully materialised and only exist in fragmented and hazy recollection. It is strikingly beautiful and recalls The Tree of Life, which presented memory in a similar way; unsurprisingly considering the affinity between Davies and Terrence Malick as uncompromising directors who challenge the scope and form of cinema to produce works of great beauty and complexity. Also like Malick, Davies is not afraid to let the camera linger on a striking image, such as cigarette smoke curling over the armrest of a chair while illuminated by the afternoon sun peaking through the curtains.

Davies also makes substantial use of fade outs and dissolves, yet he uses such editing techniques not just between shots that have large periods of time between them, which is how they are traditional used, but between shots that are happening within moments of each other. This is especially effective during the opening sequence when Hester prepares her suicide, and it conveys a dreamlike sense that time no longer has any meaning for her now that she is fully engulfed in melancholia. Like the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Dave Bowman sees himself as an older man and then becomes that older man, time for Hester is folding in on itself, like a dream or a half forgotten memory.

Davies has made a film comparable to David Lean’s masterpiece Brief Encounter, although the advantage Davies has is that he can far more explicitly explore issues of sexuality and infidelity than Lean could in 1945. Like Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which is a homage to Douglas Sirk’s films, The Deep Blue Sea feels like a film from another era that no longer has to relegate its most important ideas into coded subtext (even though that coded subtext was frequently blatant). And still, rather than being a Lean homage, The Deep Blue Sea is distinctively a Davies film. If nothing else the unconventional combination of neo-romanticism and social realism makes Davies’s work more comparable to other uncompromising radicals from England, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The final ingredient to what makes The Deep Blue Sea such a magnificent work is the performances from the three leads. As the dull older husband who is subordinate to his dominating mother, Simon Russell Beale manages to deliver a sympathetic and likeable performance as Sir William Collyer. Tom Hiddleston makes Freddie attractive, childish, damaged, contemptible and loveable, often within the same scene. Most of all, Rachel Weisz delivers a career best performance as Hester. While delivering careful and mannered lines, her true feelings are passionately expressed through her facial expressions and gestures. The audience understands exactly what she is feeling at every moment, whether it is her overwhelming desire for Freddie or an ambiguous hope that through sorrow – as opposed to depression – she may finally recover, like a city rebuilding from the rubble.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Agora (2009)

24 November 2010
Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

After science fiction and horror, one of the genres with the most potential to allegorically explore contemporary issues is the historical drama. Exploring the ideological battle between the roles of religion, science and philosophy in social and political discourse, Agora is one such film. Set in the Roman Egyptian city Alexandria in the 4th century Agora is something of a revisionist epic that is less about male heroes in sandals achieving glory with their swords and more about celebrating the achievements of proto-feminist mathematician, philosopher and astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) in an era of religious turmoil.

While the various men in the film are seen preaching the supposedly definitive virtues of their chosen religion, Hypatia is seen teaching, engaged in early scientific and astronomical research, and calling for calm and mutual respect. Her scientific work, in particular on the movement of celestial bodies, is often presented in Agora with the sort of grandiosity that other films reserve for the climax of a great battle scene. When Hypatia has her various breakthroughs the music swells and the tempo of the editing increases to heroically present such moments. In this way director and co-writer Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside) stylistically privileges the pursuit of knowledge and rational thought. On the other hand, at the conclusion of the first half of the film when the Christian hordes gain control of the city, over run the Library of the Serapeum and destroy its contents, the camera is turned upside-down to depict the triumph of religious fundamentalism over intellectual enquiry as an example of the world literally turning itself on its head.

Agora: Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz)

The most noticeable stylistic effect utilised by Amenábar are several moments throughout the film where the camera pulls back from an aerial shot of Alexandria to supposedly film Earth from space. Such shots effectively function as extreme establishing shots to locate the themes of the film as belonging to the entire planet, not just the specific time and place that Agora is set in. When the camera zooms up into space to look down upon Earth, which looks the same then as it does now, it not only puts the audience in the position of an absent god but shows us the universal and timeless nature of the film’s themes.

To give the film a human-interest angle and to create focal points for the various political and religious factions, Agora includes a love triangle subplot between Hypatia, one of her students, the aristocrat Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and one of her slaves, Davus (Max Minghella). As a woman devoted to her work teaching philosophy Hypatia has no desire to marry and end her professional career, plus she is extremely wary of the romanticised visions of what constitutes as love and demonstrates her cynicism by giving Orestes a very abject reminder of a significant element of womanhood that he probably wasn’t thinking about while publicly serenading her.

Agora: Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)

Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella)

Unfortunately, by giving the love-triangle narrative so much status within the film, Agora comes dangerously close to undermining the way it presents Hypatia as a strong and independent woman. Despite the character’s rejection of marriage, she becomes too readily defined as an object of romantic desire by this very familiar narrative structure. Amid the changing balances of power throughout the film, Orestes and Davus support and defend Hypatia in their own ways but rather than the audience viewing their devotion as that of men in awe of her teachings, this view is clouded by the suggestion that they are just love sick.

Agora is a film more to be admired than truly enjoyed. It effectively dramatises the events that occurred in the life of a remarkable woman in order to critique the intrusiveness of religion on intellectual and political discourse. Made at a time when pockets of the Christian Right are increasingly attempting to depict other religious groups as violent barbarians, Agora is also commendable for reminding audiences about the less than noble origins of Christianity. However, Agora is ultimately weighed down by the lumbering nature of the historical epic genre. The sweeping shots of the reconstructed settings and the elaborate crowd scenes are impressive but feel strikingly empty in contrast to the core of the film, which is Hypatia’s relentless philosophical and scientific enquiry. Agora could have been a powerfully subversive feminist film, but while it does have its moments it never truly lives up to its ambitious potential.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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