The Deep Blue Sea, the first fiction feature in a dozen years from the 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 is based on a 1952 work by the once-prominent British playwright Terence Rattigan, 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 raised in a society that did not allow such things to be openly spoken of — so both men share an intimate understanding of illicit or "antisocial" love. Otherwise, Davies, who prefers to look at life through the scrim of memory, 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 (one of the simultaneous expressions of public and personal feeling through popular song that runs through Davies' filmography).
Traveling up a still bomb-scarred, grubby West London street, the opening shot climbs a terrace boarding house 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 re-emergence 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 under-rationing, 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 their 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. Nevertheless, her performance of abject sulk broken by cloud breaks of radiant joy is in perfect harmony with the film's shifting atmosphere. Reviewing the first staging of The Deep Blue Sea, drama critic Kenneth Tynan concluded: "[Rattigan] has stated the case for [Hester's] death so pungently that he cannot argue her out of the impasse without forfeiting our respect. He ekes out ingeniously, lecturing her about the necessity of sublimating her impulses in painting and going to a good art school." Here Davies gives Hester no such loophole escape, but instead allows her 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.