How did I miss The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ meditative, dreamlike adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1955 play about unrequited love in postwar London, back when it came out last spring?
The answer of course is simple: As a critic, movies are always coming at you thick and fast, and you have to make choices about what’s worth seeing and writing about. I think I skipped The Deep Blue Sea at the time because Davies’ last literary adaptation, The House of Mirth (2000), had struck me as airless and vague, with Gillian Anderson, the stolid skeptic of The X-Files, fatally miscast as the doomed social butterfly Lily Bart. Or maybe I let The Deep Blue Sea slide by because the prospect of a romantic period drama starring Rachel Weisz as a tormented adulteress just sounded dull. Weisz is an actress who, despite her extraordinary beauty (seriously, is there a bad camera angle on Rachel Weisz?), has never held the screen for me. She acquits herself impeccably in every role, but in the past there’s been a sort of crisp tidiness to Weisz’s performances, or perhaps just the characters she chooses to play, who are often admirable, meaning that we never have to struggle to like them. Which is boring. (I’m thinking of the serene brain-tumor victim she played in 2006’s The Fountain, the noble Egyptian mathematician from last year’s Agora, or the plucky geneticist in the The Bourne Legacy.)
But whatever my reason for blowing off The Deep Blue Sea, it was a mistake. I watched it on Netflix Instant last night, and to my surprise and delight, it may end up numbering among my top 10 of the year. Weisz is astonishing as a character who’s very messy indeed: the passionate, self-destructive Hester Collyer, wife of the much older Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). The film opens, a legend tells us, “around 1950,” in grimy, down-at-heels post-WWII London (deftly evoked by James Merifield’s production design, which boasts some seriously depressing wallpapers). After the uxorious but milquetoasty Sir William discovers his wife has been having an affair with a younger man, the suave Royal Air Force pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), Hester shocks everyone by leaving her husband and moving into a squalid walkup flat, where she lives by herself, (badly) kept by Freddie as an on-again, off-again mistress.
To be precise, though, The Deep Blue Sea doesn’t really begin with the events described above. It kicks off with a stately dialogue-free sequence a good 10 minutes in length, during which we see Hester attempting suicide to the ominous-sounding strains of Samuel Barber’s concerto for violin and orchestra. She takes pills, turns on the gas, then lies down on the floor and half-dreams, half-remembers an impressionistic stream of images from her stifling marriage and the heady first days of her and Freddie’s affair. As this long musical interlude (which could stand alone as a silent classical-music video) comes to a close, the Freddie of the past steps up to take Hester’s hand, and we hear him speak the film’s first words—a pickup line so banal you can’t help but think, “This is the guy she’s trying to kill herself over?”
That’s Davies’ point, I think, in beginning with that daringly operatic opening montage: The Deep Blue Sea is, in part at least, about the humiliating gulf that often separates our love objects and our estimation of our love objects. This is a woman-who-loved-too-much story in the tradition of Madame Bovary or Visconti’s Senso or Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H.: a study in female masochism that shows how romantic obsession, taken to an extreme, can provide its own sick brand of feminine empowerment. Freddie, it soon turns out, is an inconstant, heartless cad who doesn’t even bother to show up for his mistress’s birthday and coldly rejects her when she seeks him out among friends at the pub. He’s also the world’s cheapest sugar daddy, barely providing Hester with enough to keep the landlady at bay and lamely offering instead that she hock his golf clubs for cash. Yet she clings with fierce pride to the absoluteness of her love for him, even when her husband, witnessing the state that Freddie has reduced her to, makes gestures toward getting her back. Though playwright Rattigan, who was gay, originally intended the drama in part as a commentary on the misery of life in the closet, Davies makes it work equally well as a feminist parable: Given the narrowness of her life choices, jettisoning a respectable marriage for the man who keeps her in sexual thrall may be the closest thing to freedom Hester’s ever experienced.
This love-triangle plot may be pure melodrama (a genre classification I use without scorn), but The Deep Blue Sea is one of those films that’s about more than its central story—moving and beautifully acted though that story is. In tiny, economical brushstrokes, Davies communicates a great deal about the fragile social fabric of postwar London. In another musical interlude later on (The Deep Blue Sea is constructed around musical interludes the way an opera is around arias), Hester descends into an empty tube station where she and her husband once took shelter during the London Blitz. Abruptly, the empty station becomes as it was then, full of huddled citizens singing an old song as the tunnel above their heads is pounded by bombs. These unmarked, disorienting shifts between present and past emphasize how close to the surface of daily life the war still was in 1950. So do Freddie’s periodic drunken rages, as he clearly strains to spin his wartime experience as a thrilling, heroic adventure rather than an abiding trauma.
“This isn’t Sophocles,” Hester dryly reminds a character who refers to her self-imposed penury and loneliness as “tragic.” No, but The Deep Blue Sea is something almost as hard to pull off on film: a spare, elegant, yet deeply involving adaptation of a mid-century British drama that could easily feel stodgy and dated. Hiddleston—whom we’ve seen onscreen most recently as the supervillain Loki in Thor and The Avengers, and as a gallant British cavalry officer in War Horse—digs into the opportunity to play something more complicated than starchy uprightness or sneering evil. His Freddie is a weak, vain man who’s perfectly aware of his weakness and vanity, and hates himself for it. And Beale is heartbreaking as the cuckolded, resentful, but still hoping-against-hope husband. But it’s Weisz’ Hester, uplifted and transfigured by an affair she freely acknowledges to be sordid and absurd, who keeps this lush, florid fever dream of a movie from feeling histrionic or overwrought. It’s a performance that transforms her from actress to movie star.