In the late 1950s Terence Rattigan fell victim to time and trend. You could look up “unfashionability” in an illustrated dictionary and there was the playwright’s mug shot: the Winslow Boy/Browning Version/Deep Blue Sea man looking out glumly into a condemned future. Today, with the Angry Young Playwright generation, his usurpers, looking more like the condemned ones, the cry “Anyone for Terence?” is heard throughout theatreland.
Now it invades cinema. Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea is one Terry’s tribute to another: a Rattigan play about tortured love in postwar England adapted by the filmmaker who gave us his tortured love paean – love of family, of childhood, of the tender nightmares of growing up in 1950s Liverpool – in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Davis hasn’t made a feature since 2000, his film of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. His style doesn’t spread easily. He needs a world where the manners are constricted and the textures clotted, even claustrophobic; a world where the main musical marking is con repressione.
Here, perfectly, it is. Hester Collyer, hauntingly played by a Rachel Weisz who seems to have hollowed out her cheekbones and fined her features, leaves her grizzly bear of a judge husband (Simon Russell Beale) for handsome RAF blighter Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). But Freddie’s head and heart are still in the clouds; he can’t make an emotional landing. Hester’s loneliness grows and amplifies; so does the film’s quietly assured expressionism. The rented apartment’s wallpaper starts to resemble a disease: dingy microbial blotches from some lost belle époque. Samuel Barber pines on the soundtrack. The photography and design (Florian Hoffmeister and James Merifield respectively) are textured to within an inch of their lives.
The movie is mostly wonderful. Weisz and Hiddleston obliterate memories of the last screen incarnators, Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More (1955). Davies has broken up and reassembled the play’s structure: it now flits about in time while seeming a single emotional unity. Only two things jar. Davies the screenwriter creates an i-dotting, t-crossing scene with Hester’s mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford), just to show the heroine waging her battle of Britain, the one against hypocritical gentility. And Hiddleston sometimes suggests a soul too rare for Freddie: a Rupert Brooke rather than a rogue-with-looks. Against these, put in the scales the unforgettable tableau of sheltering Blitz folk in the London Underground: a memory of Hester’s, used to power up the film’s mournful expressionism at its midway point, just when we need a picture instead of a thousand words.
Casting movies is like a school science class. It is all about chemistry. Yet one misjudgment and “bang!”: all is reduced to smoke, debris and a nasty smell.
Take The Prince and the Showgirl. As My Week with Marilyn delectably shows – based on Colin Clark’s memoir of squiring a famous Hollywood diva during a British movie shoot – the 1957 romantic comedy was a catastrophic mingling of two opposites: Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. She (Michelle Williams with the peroxide hair-cloud and breathy moues) was the famous, voluptuous, insecure sex goddess. He (Kenneth Branagh with thin lips and lightning eyes) was the clipped martinet who couldn’t bear artistic neurosis or the flighty caprices of stardom, having been schooled in both by marriage to Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond).
A frothy Terence Rattigan screen comedy (yes, him again), based on his stage play? Just the thing, said the God of Mischief. Soon Larry and Marilyn were at each other’s throats, sending screams volleying around Pinewood and neighbouring parishes. The off-camera reality, My Week with Marilyn suggests, was much funnier than Rattigan’s confected romp about a Ruritanian-ish royal and a showgirl.
We don’t have to believe – frankly we don’t even need – the narrating ego of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark’s slumming-patrician act was a third element in the chemistry class. Son of Lord Clark of TV’s Civilisation and brother to diarist-politician Alan (who would surely have made shorter work of a Tinseltown nymphet), Colin was the third assistant director. His alleged canoodlings with Monroe are a minor, apocryphal footnote: we keep wishing his character would go away, leaving the screen to Williams’s portrait of dippy pulchritude and to Branagh’s spectacularly funny Olivier. Branagh doesn’t even have to speak (though the vocal mimicries are spot-on). One sequence of mute close-ups in Olivier’s mirrored dressing-room catches the vanity and tinder-box narcissism of this actor-director-producer, who never liked to have his own showboating tantrums upstaged by another’s.
Moneyball is Brad Pitt in a dugout. Oh dear; oh dear. Here is baseball, reel upon reel and inning upon inning. Though co-scripted by the gifted Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, The Social Network), the film is mercilessly parochial if you’re not American and screamingly anal if you’re anyone at all who doesn’t know, or care, that Billy Beane (Pitt) revolutionised coaching/managing techniques.
Disregarding fame and notional class, Beane statistically studied performance, with a dorky economics graduate (Jonah Hill), to sign new players and turn around in one season the playing fortunes of the Oakland A’s. That’s it for plot. Don’t look for subplot or embellishment. All is dinningly one-directional. My theory is that Moneyball, now landing in the UK, is Hollywood’s revenge on Britain for sending them Brian Clough and The Damned United.
The actor Michael Shannon was born in a suburb of Hell. Or so you’d think from his skill in playing states of damnation: Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination). The prognathous-primitive upper lip (early Homer Simpson); the lava rock complexion pumiced with anxiety; the windscreen-wiper eyes raking landscapes for potential catastrophe. His default setting as an actor is gloom with sporadic twitches; his showy moments are Mount Etna eruptions.
This persona is now so well established in American independent cinema that Take Shelter – from Shotgun Stories writer-director Jeff Nichols – uses it lazily, like a laissez-passer to our apocalypse sensors.
Shannon, wife Jessica Chastain and their deaf-mute little daughter live in a corner of the American Nightmare. His hereditary paranoid schizophrenia (the script is on shaky psychiatric ground) drives him to build a backyard survival shelter. He fears those fist-shaped thunderclouds no one else sees and that oily rain no one else experiences. The screenplay gets one-note nuttier, the direction more one-note gothic-miserablist. Overpraised at Cannes, Take Shelter wears its shallow, tendentious profundity like a Halloween party dress.
There is more American disrepair in 50/50. But this deadly-illness drama – spinal cancer battening on preppyish young radio producer Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – is so well-meaning you want to hug it. It bravely sprinkles its story with comedy. Seth Rogen plays the hero’s best friend, a pushy joker trying to laugh off doom while inwardly crying. Gordon-Levitt makes a baldness-covering woolly hat sweet and sexy. You could write most of the script yourself. But you couldn’t afford Rogen, Hollywood’s human Fozzie Bear. And you might not always match screenwriter Will Reiser’s brand of sad-funny plain-talking dialogue. Adam to painter ex-girlfriend Bryce Dallas Howard: “I’m sorry I didn’t come to your opening. It’s because I hate you so much.” The film is very Capra, complete with corn; but caustic when it needs to be.