The Deep Blue Sea
Weisz shimmers in a postwar England ‘Sea’
Rachel Weisz has become an exquisite camera artist. In a single shot, she can open up a whole movie. “The Deep Blue Sea’’ has a scene like that. Weisz sits at a table in a London restaurant whose patrons are all singing Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me.’’ Some of these people are seated at her table, including Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), the RAF pilot she loves, and they know the song and sing it with real fervor. It means something to them. It’s uniting them, soothing them, seducing them.
But Weisz’s character, Hester Collyer, doesn’t appear to know what’s happening. She looks content but confused. As Hester tries and fails to find the lyrics, Weisz turns away from Hiddleston to face the room, mouthing a few words - miming them, really. The half smile she forces dams off panic.
It’s a beautiful trick, of course. The movie is set “around’’ 1950. The song is from 1952. But the way the writer and director Terence Davies uses it, with the ghost of war in the air, it simply seems to bring everyone in that restaurant to some intensely peaceful place, as if Jo Stafford rang out after the last bomb fell on London. Hester’s unfamiliarity with it is devastating. Where or to whom does she belong? That scene is a small, quiet moment, but Davies brings everything out of it and, in a medium wide shot, Weisz’s searching and isolation are almost all you want to see.
“The Deep Blue Sea’’ is based on Terence Rattigan’s 60-year-old play, whose elemental themes, tidy structure, occasional nastiness, and meaty central role keep it a hit in every decade. Davies’s attraction to it appears to be as the groundwork for conjuring an atmosphere of postwar remembrance, one on a continuum with his own autobiographical films, chiefly “The Long Day Closes’’ (1988) and “Distant Voices, Still Lives’’ (1992). The new movie bridges the era of Davies’s upbringing with some of the social brutality in his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth’’ (2000) - distance, stillness, short-lived mirth.
The film follows the wilting stem of the present, the day after Hester, heartsick over Freddie, fails to kill herself. She has to live with the humiliation of coexisting alongside her suicide note and her infrequently sober, increasingly spiteful lover. Largely, though, the film retreats into her memories of both the very proper London judge (Simon Russell Beale) with whom she shares a safe but refrigerated marriage and the life she hoped to forge with Freddie, first in a shabby boarding house run by a watchful old woman, cleverly played by Ann Mitchell.
Rattigan had written an ironic tragedy, ripe for big, actorly moments. Naming his adulterous protagonist “Hester’’ might have been overripe. Davies features all of it. He just places the dramatic emphasis elsewhere. (The wool coat of his Hester is north of scarlet.) “The Deep Blue Sea’’ swells, instead, with a great rueful heave. The camera wends and winds and watches. This is among the most ruminative of melodramas, a member of a family that includes David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,’’ Max Ophüls’s “Letter From an Unknown Woman,’’ and Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows.’’ Some of Davies’s shots echo shots in those films. A stirring sequence in which Hester considers throwing herself in front of a moving train evokes a similar moment with Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter.’’ Samuel Barber’s tremulous violin concerto serves the same heart-stopping function as the Rachmaninoff in Lean’s film.
You always felt with Rattigan that the constraints of the period limited what he could dramatize. So his work sometimes wore the mask of allegory. In this case, the mask was homosexuality - Hester could easily have been a man. Still, Anatole Litvak managed a version in 1955 with Vivien Leigh that fit with some of the women’s movies of that era - as judgmentally perplexed by a woman’s sexual liberty. The surprise of Davies’s version is how the talk of lust and its repression, put at Hester’s feet throughout the film, doesn’t feel remembered at all. It feels current. That’s to do with the timelessness of Davies’s idea of how lush a film can feel. It’s also to do with the modernity of his star.
There’s little about Weisz that bespeaks postwar England. That’s the source of her immediacy here: It’s as if she’s been transported from this era to Hester’s and is trying to escape. Hence the touching eeriness of that restaurant scene. It was, perhaps, a you-had-to-be-there moment, and this Hester appears to have arrived from someplace else.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the age of the play the film is based. Its 60 years old.