This story is a simple, but powerful drama, aggressively adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. I say “aggressively” because Rattigan’s play is structured quite differently. It is still clearly the story of three distinct characters, but director Terence Davies approached it exclusively from Hester’s (Rachel Weisz) perspective and rebuilt the narrative around her.
Davies has captured the solid core of the drama, complete with precise dialogue and rounded characters, and delivered it in a visual fashion that only cinema can do. The effect is extraordinary, occasionally sublime and genuinely deserving of being called poetic, which is an overused term. It can feel like a contradiction, but it’s important that it holds such power because on paper the story is not what we would call a barrel of laughs! However it has some tricks up its sleeve to always be thoughtful, engrossing and rewarding. The opening scene is Weisz as Hester trying to commit suicide and being rescued by her landlady and another resident, who probably isn’t a proper doctor, but knows enough to rescue the ailing girl from herself. We’re in the 1950s, it’s bleak and this tale of how destructive love can be is taking no prisoners already.
From there the narrative moves freely through the preceding months to show us how Hester came to be so desperate. She was married to a Judge (Simon Russell Beale) and truly loved him, but his traditional nature, standing in society and strong relationship with his mother was suffocating Hester, so much so she was easily tempted by the promise of adventure and passion with pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and embarks on an affair, eventually leaving her husband. But Freddie isn’t ready for such strong emotions and can’t fully return Hester’s affection. All three are innocent and act nobly in varying degrees, but they just need something different from each other and it’s heart-breaking. That opening scene turns out to be in the dingy flat that Hester finds herself sharing with Freddie and her suicide attempt is the counter-point of the plot.
There is no escaping the rigidity of the story’s theatrical foundation, but this is to the benefit of the actors who would relish the rhythm of the dialogue and the depth of the characters. Rachel Weisz is simply stunning as the brittle and flawed Hester. She’s a tough character because Davies is acutely aware of how women of that time were expected to behave in society and that shadows all her decisions. Her pride is tangible even as it threatens to destroy her. Simon Russell Beale also had a balancing act as the wounded husband. This mummy’s boy could easily appear pathetic, but his honesty and integrity is inspiring. With those two defined so well it would be easy to consider Tom Hiddleston’s younger pilot character the villain, but to his credit Hiddleston effortlessly shows us a man scared of commitment and responsibility, yet defends that flawed nature and gets as much sympathy from the viewer as the others seem to deserve. A scene towards the end is very moving and powerful as he finally faces up to circumstances that are not his fault.
And what of the mother-in-law, a character who wasn’t in the play at all? Knowing as I do now Davies’ own relationship with his beloved mother and his ability to be sharply self-critical, there is an irony in the scenes between Beale and Barbara Jefford. She delivers what should be unwieldy dialogue with the precision of a dagger! Davies also changed the character of Hester’s landlady to be more realistic and gives her a great scene to shame Hester where she explains what real love is. I won’t spoil it here because it’s a cracking line.
The elegant narrative allows for Davies to interpret the scenes in ways the play could never do. Not only does he bring his considerable personal understanding of the time to frame the story more realistically with a meticulous and tangible set design, the poet in him allows for some gorgeous sequences. A lot of his work is based on the indistinct nature of memory -in this case, Hester’s rather than his own- and two moments in particular are incredible. One, a slow pan through a tube station being used as a shelter during the blitz and a second one that starts with a rowdy pub sing-along to ‘You Belong To me’ and lets the sound meld into the original recording as Hester and Freddie dance slowly. If you’re wondering what constitutes perfect cinema, just check for goosebumps. Honestly, twice in one film is vulgar.
It is a tough story, but the realism of the work frames the story in nostalgia that is bittersweet, yet always with a realistic sense of hope. The Deep Blue Sea treads a fine line and does so with the grace of a musical (Davies’ use of soundtracks in his work is incredible; Distant Voices, Still Lives is virtually a musical). The films absence at both the BAFTA’s and the Oscar’s is to the industry’s continuing shame as it at least deserved nominations for acting, direction, cinematography and adapted screenplay.