The only thing that outshines Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies' drama of postwar Britain is Davies himself

The Deep Blue Sea

Directed by Terence Davies

Opens April 20 at the Charles Theatre

Most American filmgoers probably know British actress Rachel Weisz, but far fewer are likely to be familiar with British film director Terence Davies or British playwright Terence Rattigan. Thus the significance of The Deep Blue Sea might be a bit lost on even the most dedicated domestic art-house crowd. Davies has built a reputation in his native England perhaps not dissimilar to that of our own Terrence Malick as a cinematic poet who issues lyrical masterworks every decade or so. Rattigan’s 1952 drama remains an essential foundation stone of postwar British theater and features one of its most coveted and daunting female roles. All of which is to say that the prospect of Weisz starring in Davies’ adaptation of Rattigan’s play is a big deal, and the film that results does not disappoint.

We meet Weisz’s Hester as she props a suicide note on the mantle of her dingy apartment, turns on the gas, and lies down and waits to die. As she floats away from consciousness, the film begins its occasional drifts between present and past. We come to understand that Hester is married to much older judge William (Simon Russell Beale), a wealthy nobleman/doughy milquetoast, and that she’s fallen for dashing young former Royal Air Force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston, a ringer for a more callow Michael Fassbender). But Hester doesn’t die, and as what was supposed to be her last day drags on, she finds herself recalling her fall and confronting her ultimate isolation from both William, to whom pride and passion won’t allow her to return, and from Freddie, who was perhaps never worth all the emotion she poured into him in the first place.

It is the stuff of melodrama, and when Davies cranks up the strings and embarks on a series of his trademark operatic pans early on, The Deep Blue Sea seems headed in that direction. But just as Davies strips away many of the play’s subplots and prunes back secondary characters to focus on Hester, he keeps on stripping and pruning. Occasional well-placed outbursts of lachrymose violin aside, there’s very little score here, and, indeed, very little sound in many scenes, allowing the tiniest chewing noises and muffled throat clearings to ring out when, say, Hester shares an uncomfortable teatime with William and his overbearing mother (Barbara Jefford). And when music does appear, it earns its more prominent role (à la Davies’ best-known film, 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives). In one scene, everyone at Freddie’s local pub sings along with the World War II-era chestnut “You Belong to Me” except Hester—as the wife of a well-bred type, she doesn’t know the lyrics to the sentimental staple, and thus is ever so slightly shut out of the nostalgic moment of bonding. When Davies wants to recreate and emphasize the sense of closeness the war did bring to all of Britain, he orchestrates a bravura scene panning the length of a tube station packed with Londoners—including Hester and William—taking shelter from the bombing above as a uniformed soldier sings in a de facto spotlight.

Davies’ adaptation clearly means to make the most of the parallels between Hester’s plight and that of postwar Britain, with its privations and struggles and enduring malaise. The resulting resonance will probably occur to but maybe never fully connect with American audiences. But The Deep Blue Sea works far outside its context. While Hester’s dilemma is a bit anachronistic, Weisz makes the most of Davies’ focus on her character, brilliantly modulating heartbreak and dashed hopes with shrewd self-awareness. She’s been foolish in love, perhaps, but she isn’t a fool at heart, which makes her both more and less sympathetic at various points. Hiddleston likewise impresses, making clear Freddie’s vital, virile appeal while giving equal weight to his insubstantial nature. The shocked look that dawns on Hiddleston’s face when Freddie realizes he’s forgotten Hester’s birthday is so profound and yet so guileless that the viewer knows not to expect more from him for the rest of the film, even as Hester vainly does.

The best performance here comes from Davies, however, as he takes a fairly standard drama and transforms it into an elliptical musing, edging its way at times toward the edge of conventional narrative but nonetheless as rooted in the real as the proverbial kitchen sink. The more lyrical passages here (gyring overhead pans that track the course of Hester’s relationship with Freddie in just a few shots) mesh beautifully with more straightforward drama (a volcanic shouting match between the lovers outside a pub). Davies makes this suite of passion, regret, and finding the will to carry on truly sing.

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