The Deep Blue Sea is the sort of romance that sees love as a destructive force. There are no big answers when characters fall in or out of love, and they instead grapple with the consequences of feelings beyond their control. Working from the play by Terence Rattigan, writer/director Terence Davies regards the drama with clear-eyed fasciation. His terrific cast, including an Academy Award-winner and well-known names in British theater, can be forceful in one scene and helpless in another. Still, this is one play adaptation that never feels too stagey because Davies’ long takes are lush visual compositions.
After the title card, Davies languidly dwells on a young London couple as an orchestral score provides an overture. The sequence lasts for ten minutes – in Davies lone misstep, the strings are grating – yet the scene conveys just how Hester (Rachel Weisz) and her lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) became enraptured. When their passion is not mutual, however, Hester is despondent. She attempts suicide while Freddie is on holiday. Neighbors disrupt her plan, and she remains feeble when he returns.
In many ways, Freddie is the opposite of Hester’s cuckolded husband William (Simon Russell Beale). Freddie is former pilot and a drunk, the sort of chap whose charm makes his emotional distance seem chillier. William, on the other hand, is a middle-aged judge who is shy about sex; Hester’s life with him was comfortable yet stifling. While convalescing, Hester pleads with Freddie, but his reticence gives way to anger. Hester still loves Freddie, and after William returns, her feelings keep in her in a limbo from which there is seems little chance of escape.
The Deep Blue Sea may focus on suicide and unrequited love, yet it finds coiled energy through razor-sharp dialogue. There are early scenes where Hester sits at the dining room table with William and her mother. The mother-in-law uses passive-aggressive language like a weapon, and Barbara Jefford seems so cruel that it becomes funny. With limited screen time, Jefford’s memorable performance overshadows the type of role made popular by Jessica Walter and Maggie Smith.
William’s mother is not the only one who verbally pummels Hester. The conservative William seethes through his teeth when he catches wind of the affair, and Freddie is in a rage when Hester pleads for his affection. Weisz’s role would be difficult for any actor. The easy temptation would be to play her like a frail victim. But under Davies’ shrewd direction, there is proud introspection interspersed with necessary moments of self-pity. Weisz never completely succumbs to the temptation of having us feel sorry for her, and eschewing maudlin drama is what preserves the film’s urgency.
The culture and history of London in 1950 is what informs the attitudes of Hester and the others. Begrudgingly, Freddie’s neighbors tolerate Hester once they realize the couple never married, and William’s bitter refusal to divorce is similarly old-fashioned. In a masterful steadi-cam shot on an underground train platform, we see how bonds of affection developed through the blitzkrieg of World War 2. Even with atmospheric, historic touches, Davies keeps the adaptation modern by never letting his characters off the hook, and by challenging us to reevaluate them. His version of romance will not leave anyone clamoring for an embrace, although it may make audiences wish they could be so emotionally incisive in a quarrel.