The Deep Blue Sea, the first fiction feature in a dozen years from visionary British director Terence Davies, is a film about love that in no way reassures that love conquers all. Plumbing disquieting depth, Deep Blue Sea investigates the insoluble dilemma of romantic love: the expectation, contrary to experience, that we can or will find every quality that we want in a single person.
Lady Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) has left her husband, high court judge Sir William (Simon Russell Beale) — and a life of cultured conversation and posh fireside comfort amid postwar deprivation — to live in slummy sin with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), an emotionally immature former RAF pilot who survived the Battle of Britain but never readapted to civilian life and whose lovemaking has irreparably shaken up the foundations of Hester's existence. "Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly," Sir William's mother, an astringent Barbara Jefford, warns. "What would you replace it with?" retorts Hester — a succinct summary of the central problem of The Deep Blue Sea.
The film, based on a 1952 work by once-prominent British playwright Terence Rattigan, was previously filmed with Vivien Leigh in 1955, directed for the stage by social-realist filmmaker Karel Reisz in '92, and, as Davies' production began, successfully touring the English provinces. Like Davies, Rattigan was a gay man, so both share an intimate understanding of illicit or "antisocial" love. Otherwise, Davies has made The Deep Blue Sea very much his own, breaking up Rattigan's front-loaded exposition, revealing the characters instead through fragmentary scenes, images that bob like jetsam across the rushing surface of his heroine's mind: lovers' quarrels followed by tender moments of commiseration, a sing-along of "Molly Malone" in a tube-station shelter during the Blitz.
Traveling up a still-bomb-scarred, grubby West London street, the opening shot climbs a terrace boardinghouse to the third-story window, beyond which is a musty-brown bedroom that has been quietly eroding since Edwardian times, where Hester has decided to end her life in front of the gas fireplace.
In the aftermath of the botched attempt, Hester recalls the events that have led her here, establishing the pattern of alternating between the present-tense drama of Hester and Freddie's affair in its final dissolution — accompanied by the reemergence of Sir William — and its history. Davies as much conducts as adapts Rattigan's play — the slow tick of Hester's mantle clock is a metronome, leading into Samuel Barber's thrilling, harrowing violin concerto, a full nine minutes of which soundtrack the story of Hester's social rebellion, outlined in a few abridged flashbacks. The presiding aesthetic is the monochrome austerity of Britain underrationing, with a luxuriant sensuality bleeding through, as in Hester's claret-red coat or the smoke of her cigarettes purling through a sunbeam.
Davies and his cast create the rare triangular affair where every side of the triangle is drawn with equal care and sympathy, where each party's hopes — and disappointments — are eloquently understood. After Sir William's anger cools, he again becomes considerate "Bill" to Hester, showing something of a little boy's nose-wrinkling twinkle in his white-whiskered face. The relatively youthful Hiddleston has no such childishness but conveys the helpless distress of causing pain merely by being one's self.
Weisz is ten years younger than Beale and ten years older than Hiddleston — true to the age differences in Rattigan's play, though she looks youthful enough to alter the intended dynamic. Still, her performance of abject sulk broken by cloud breaks of radiant joy is in perfect harmony with the film's shifting atmosphere. Davies allows Hester a stoical endurance that commands our respect. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, she can only abide — which, in the film's terms, is the nearest thing to victory that life affords.