Terence Davies belongs to that select group of filmmakers—alongside Kubrick and Terrence Mallick—who get around to making a movie once or twice a decade and whose films become exemplars of a singular vision and immaculate craftsmanship. Since 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies has created five features and one documentary that, taken together, form a remarkable mosaic of Davies’ autobiography and memories of post-WW2 English life weaved into themes of heartbreak and isolation. His latest, The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, fits neatly into that body of work as it follows Hester (Rachel Weisz), a married woman in emotional freefall in the wake of a frustrated affair in post-WW2 London.
After surviving a suicide attempt, Hester reflects on the events that led to her present ruin. In a series of seamlessly constructed flashbacks, Davies depicts how Hester’s affair with handsome Royal Air Force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) saves her from a suffocating marriage to Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a brilliant judge but a dull husband. An obstinate romantic, Hester gives herself over to her passions and fantasies of a happily-ever-after with Freddie even as William, a man who genuinely loves her, tries to win her back. Freddie, however, is too self-absorbed, too independent to commit himself fully to Hester. When he discovers that, in his absence, Hester tried to kill herself, the relationship reaches its breaking point.
What makes The Deep Blue Sea such an emotionally absorbing experience is the uncanny blend of tone, performances and craftsmanship that Davies’ direction brings to bear. Since his first films, Davies has summoned memory as a living, ever-present force, guiding his characters through every choice and enabling their survival. Davies manages to interweave past and present into a single thread—a poignant choice since Hester’s past informs and activates her present.
The flashback memories, as much as the present-time scenes, all have a compact, intimate feel about them. Characters interact in close settings—in pubs, darkened street corners, the interior of William’s car, a shabby apartment, around an elegant dining table, etc.—keeping viewers focused on the human drama. The story’s environments come alive through the director’s mastery of the textures of sound. Simply listening to The Deep Blue Sea is itself a source of pleasure: Staticky radio music, the creak of doors and floors, the crackle of stubbed-out cigarettes, the choked-back pauses in speech—everything is meticulously reproduced so that viewers can become immersed into Hester’s world without the camera having to leave her side. Only an obtrusive Samuel Barber violin concerto, punctuating the movie’s direst moments, swings the movie dangerously into melodrama—a serious, though not fatal, lapse of tone in an otherwise sensitively and subtly crafted soundtrack.
The intimacy of Davies’ direction captures the brilliance of Weisz and her co-stars’ performances. Beale, for instance, gives dimensions of vulnerability and humor to the cuckolded Collyer, turning what could’ve been a typical stuffed shirt into a sympathetic soul. Hiddleston provides solid emotional counterweight to Weisz, for whom The Deep Blue Sea is an exquisite showcase. Hester is an emotional chameleon, shifting from tough and in control opposite her pining husband to delicate and grasping opposite the distant Freddie. Whether one or the other, it’s a credit to Weisz’s command of her character that audiences keep a rooting interest in Hester, hoping she finds the strength to stand on her own in a bleak, lovelorn world—before the final credits roll.
Director: Terence Davies
Writer: Terence Davies
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale, Tom Hiddleston, Ann Mitchell, Barbara Jefford, Oliver Ford Davies
Release Date: Mar. 23, 2012