The Deep Blue Sea restores two distinctive voices to the screen: it’s not only the first film adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play in more than a decade (the last was David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy in 1999), but also writer-director Terence Davies’ first narrative feature since 2000’s The House of Mirth. If Davies aims to counter Rattigan’s unfairly musty reputation, he couldn’t have chosen sharper material than this painful, personal, unapologetically adult look at the subtleties of sexual relationships, which Rattigan identified as “the hardest of my plays to write.”
The opening caption “Around 1950” — displayed just before Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) tries (and fails) to commit suicide in a drab London flat — seems vague until the film’s structure demonstrates that it couldn’t be more appropriate. Skipping about chronologically, the film continuously circles this shocking event, concentrating impressionistic fragments at the outset and revealing how they fit into the puzzle slowly, as longer, clearer scenes illustrate Hester’s staid marriage to an older judge (Simon Russell Beale) and her impetuous affair with a former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Where Rattigan’s play begins with the suicide attempt and proceeds linearly through the rest of the day, Davies’ film takes place within an indeterminate period of months (plus a scene that’s set several years earlier). Davies has not so much adapted as reconceived the play, shuffling the text and opening it out, eliminating some supporting characters and inventing others.
What remains, most firmly, is Rattigan’s feel for human nature. Brought to life through unshowy performances that complement the finely wrought dialogue, the characters are driven by conflicting forces of passion, tenderness, anger, decency, illogic, and repression. They fly into fits of petulance over trivialities but remain unbearably cordial when they are in the most pain. Ultimately, they are prisoners not only of their feelings, but also of a specific time and place: dreary, exhausted postwar Britain, a nation defeated by the grueling effort of victory. But amid the dingy rooming-houses and gloomy pubs, Davies finds beauty in the everyday, shooting light through windows in limpid soft-focus or framing his characters’ faces against dark backgrounds in the manner of 19th-century portraiture. And, like Davies’ earlier films, The Deep Blue Sea is notable for its use of music: Samuel Barber’s concerto for violin and orchestra sets a tone of melancholy passion throughout, and two singalongs — one, in a pub, to Jo Stafford’s recording of “You Belong to Me,” and another of “Molly Malone” in the Aldwych tube station during a Blitz flashback — underscore how Hester is cursed to make only fleeting connections with others amid a lifetime of loneliness.
With a husband who knows of her infidelity but won’t grant her a divorce and a lover whose passion has cooled, Hester describes her predicament by saying she feels “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Rattigan was wise to truncate the familiar idiom for his title and focus on the second part of the equation. If his play (and Davies’ adaptation) spends most of its time examining “the devil” of known temptation, it leaves viewers contemplating “the deep blue sea,” that great expanse of uncertainty you face when you go on living after everything has fallen apart.