The Deep End

(Scott McGehee & David Siegel, USA, 2001)


The publicity materials for The Deep End remain rather tight-lipped about the fact that it is a remake of a great but today little-seen and little-known Hollywood melodrama, Max Ophuls' The Reckless Moment (1949).

Although the writer-director team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel have returned to the source material, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 novel The Blank Wall, their film follows Ophuls very closely indeed.

One important element has been tweaked. The domestic dilemma of Margaret (Tilda Swinton) no longer involves a wayward daughter mixing with bad company, but a gay son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), exploring his newly discovered lifestyle. One of the best ideas of this remake is to plunge Margaret, early on, into the gay underworld.

But the basic, driving idea of the story is still the same. Margaret, keeping the whole sordid business a secret from her absent husband, enters into a strange, ambiguous relationship with various, criminal characters – especially the charismatic Alek (Goran Visnjic) – when the dead body of Beau's boyfriend turns up in front of the family home.

In anyone's hands, this would be intriguing material, boldly mixing the templates of family drama and film noir. But The Deep End is not nearly as involving as its illustrious predecessor. Partly, this is a matter of casting. Visnjic is no James Mason, alas, while Swinton often edges, as is her wont, towards performance art – turning Margaret into a third-degree quotation of Hollywood heroines like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945).

The Deep End is a schematic, cerebral film – better than the first McGehee-Siegel effort, Suture (1993), but equally lacking in spontaneity and heat. As with any modernisation of old material, some elements translate better than others.

Paradoxically, some of the key omissions that have been made in the name of contemporary realism – such as dropping the character of the family's black maid and the Christmas time setting – render the story less radical and disturbing. And the central thrust of Ophuls' direction – to capture, in an ironically fluid way, the claustrophobia of Margaret's home situation – is palely reproduced here.

In The Reckless Moment, the audience can fully accept the heroine (incarnated superbly by Joan Bennett) as a prisoner in a nuclear, suburban family – and feel the full, agonising force of Ophuls' empathy for her socially circumscribed plight. The Deep End, which cannot quite commit itself to this same, melodramatic extreme, plumbs a shallower emotion. It is a reasonably affecting film about loneliness – but not entrapment.

another remake: Original Sin

© Adrian Martin November 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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