I hate to say this due to my respect and admiration for director Terence Davies, but I have a very serious issue with The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box, 3.23), which Davies directed and adapted from a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan. The issue, I regret to say, is with Florian Hoffmeister‘s cinematography.
In his 11.26.11 Guardian review, Phillip French says that look of The Deep Blue Sea is coated “with the brown varnish of postwar austerity.” But that’s under-describing it, really, for The Deep Blue Sea has one of the dispiriting and suffocating visual schemes I’ve ever seen in my life.
We all know & respect the celebrated dps who’ve worked wonders with shadows and darkness (Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, Andrezj Bartkowiak, etc.) but Hoffmeister’s images are on another planet entirely. Sea isn’t just shadowy, and not just underlighted. It’s like every scene has been covered in a kind of gauze or scrim. Make that a very thick gauze or scrim. Or some kind of special digital vaseline that softens the image and makes every shot look swathed in hazy fog.
I’m trying to think of other films that have delivered this level of murk and grimness, this stifled atmosphere. I recall a 1971 King Lear, directed by Peter Brook and starring Paul Scofield, that had this kind of vibe.
This must be what it’s like when you’re succumbing to blindness due to disease or old age, I told myself. Everything starts to get darker and murkier and less detailed, and then finally you can see nothing. Obviously Davies and Hoffmeister were trying to “paint” an unhappy, buttoned-down world of proper manners and emotional constipation, but what a ghastly viewing experience! It’s suicidal to have shot a film with this kind of visual “value,” if you want to call it that.
I asked the screening-room projectionist if there was any possibility that he might not be delivering the proper light levels (i.e., foot lamberts) on the screen. He said nope, and that “the darkness is in the print.” I’ve asked to see The Deep Blue Sea on a screener to double-check.
On top of which the screening room I saw The Deep Blue Sea in what felt like a room adjacent to a burning furnace. It was bright and cool outside, and the screening room was warm, airless, suffocating. I complained and the engineer said it was fine, but it wasn’t.