If satire doesn’t draw blood, what’s the point? For years that was the problem with Saturday Night Live, which tended to make its political caricatures into lovable clods, figures of fun rather than fury. (Things have been more barbed around there lately.) In Britain, there’s a long tradition of going for the jugular rather than the jocular, and Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci wields the scalpel with cutting precision. His Oscar-nominated 2009 comedy In the Loop was a scathing look inside UK politics, and he co-created Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge, an acidly sketched broadcaster whose first TV talk show was canceled when Partridge accidentally fatally shot a guest. More recently, Iannucci created Veep, HBO’s Emmy-winning political satire.
For his latest big-screen project, Iannucci comes close to perfectly balancing comedy and savagery.
The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box), adapted from Terence Rattigan’s play by Terence Davies, is ravishing and devastating, a romantic drama of impossible love between the cultured married woman (Rachel Weisz) and a hot-tempered working class war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) in the years after World War II.
The film slips back and forth through the story, as if “drifting in and out of memory” (as Davies describes it in his commentary), and the grace of his filmmaking enhances that quality of floating through her story, both in the moment of intimacy and looking back in hindsight. Davies connects on a deep, devoted level to Hester (Weisz), a woman who clearly married young to a much older man (Simon Russell Beale), a very proper judge from the aristocratic classes and old money. She only realizes how much she has missed out on the swooning ecstasy of love and passion and sex when her heart is carried away by Freddie (Hiddleston), a former RAF bomber pilot struggling to find his place in the post-war world.
All this is suggested rather than explicated as we tour her odyssey, which begins at her lowest, most desperate moment and drifts back on her tumultuous emotional journey. She very much likes her husband, a decent and affectionate and generous man, but she is brought to life by Freddie. Even when it is clear that any permanent relationship between them is doomed (their experiences are simply too different for their characters to bridge), she never wavers: love over compromise, even at the cost of such pain. Davies embraces her story as both tragic and liberating.
This is Davies’ first fictional film in over a decade, since the magnificent “The House of Mirth,” and he seems to have invested every frame of the film with his exhilaration of making movies once again as well as a bittersweet quality of regret for the films he never made. His direction is loving, intimate, and exquisite.
Davies is sensitive to the texture of British films as they looked in the 1950s and uses filters and delicate, soft lighting to achieve a specific look. Unfortunately, the digital mastering doesn’t handle the effects well, exaggerating the grain of the film stock and distorting the texture. The colors and tones shift from scene to scene and there’s a haze across the image in many shots. This may not be a problem for many viewers and it is only a distraction on some scenes, but to my eyes it is not true to the image as seen in theaters.
On Blu-ray and DVD with supplements. Terence Davies is joined by Ian Haden-Smith (taking the moderator role) for a lovely commentary track, where Davies discusses his approach and choices. Though the track has a habit of going silent for long periods toward the second half, it is filled with Davies’ affection not just for the film but the contributions of his collaborators (“You can’t direct that!” he gushes at particularly inspired nuances of performance). His love of making movies and the power of cinema is evident in every comment.
Also features a 28-minute “Terence Davies Master Class” lecture about his adaptation and approach to the film, the 11-minute “Realizing the Director’s Vision” with Davies and collaborators discuss the making of the film, and interviews with actors Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, plus an accompanying booklet with essays by producer Sean O’Connor and film critic Scott Tobias.