Times have changed since playwright Terence Rattigan penned his 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea, but with his new adaptation, film director Terence Davies has no interest in "updating" the play. No need: this exquisite realization is as vital as can be in depicting the timeless tortures of the romantically damned.
Rachel Weisz stars as Hester Collyer, who we meet in the throes of a suicide attempt in her London flat, circa 1950. Flashbacks reveal that Hester recently abandoned her husband, High Court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) to co-habitate with the dashing—and considerably younger—RAF war vet Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). For the most part, the story unfolds over the course of twenty-fours, as Hester finds herself caught "between the devil and the deep blue sea": she's half of two mismatched couples and therefore in a no-win situation.
William shows the sensitivity of which Freddie is incapable (as a judge, his "profession is the study of human nature") but his dull and sexless marriage with Hester enabled Freddie successfully to make his move. Freddie, however, is a cruel master, passionate but hotheaded, and nowhere near in love with Hester as she desperately loves him (to her, he's "the whole of life and death").
It would be all too easy for audiences to dismiss Hester as a doormat were it not for the context of the palpable postwar period (skillfully realized by production designer James Merifield and costume designer Ruth Myers) and the intense performance wrought by Weisz under Davies' care. It's never less than clear that both men are wrong for Hester, and yet all three characters are capable of earning our sympathy. By picture's end, Hester has gained hard-won knowledge for a new day, which gets a quietly moving visual representation.
Davies (The House of Mirth) orchestrates the film with confident pacing and elegant mise-en-scène, Florian Hoffmeister's camera gently drifting, rising, spinning, never quite showy but fully in concert with the soundtrack's string-laden Samuel Barber. And while the surface here is heterosexual, the subtext allows for "queer" allegory, both Terences having artistically wrestled with their once-illicit orientation.
Ann Mitchell and Barbara Jefford do fine work in small roles (as Hester's landlady and mother-in-law, respectively), but the show belongs to Weisz, an uncompromisingly harsh Hiddleston, and Beale, whose range knows no bounds: his subtly heartsick performance here stands worlds away from his bombastic Sir Harcourt Courtly in the National Theatre's London Assurance.
Understand: The Deep Blue Sea is near-thoroughly dour—as Hester puts it, "Sad perhaps, but hardly Sophocles"—but it's also captivating, and likely to be remembered as one of the year's best.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]