“The Deep Blue Sea” shows us where love has gone, reveals the dark and despairing places where ardor has shipwrecked and run aground. Exceptionally well-made and completely fearless in its depiction of the widest range of romantic emotions, this is a film as fiercely committed to passion as its heroine, and that’s saying a lot.
As played by Rachel Weisz in a performance every bit as compelling as her Oscar-winning work in “The Constant Gardener,” Hester Collyer is a woman out of time, a woman whose belief in the deepest and most profound kind of love puts her at odds with both the men in her life and the drab postwar British society she lives in.
Guiding Weisz, and altering the thrust of the original 1952 Terence Rattigan play to focus on Hester’s point of view, is writer-director Terence Davies, not well known here but celebrated at home as one of the preeminent British directors of his generation.
From his first film, 1988’s masterful semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Davies attracted notice for bringing modern filmmaking attitudes and formidable skill to classic emotional stories, often with women at their center, that exposed the pain that can accompany romantic relationships. The promising combination of his contemporary ability to mix memory and narrative with Rattigan’s straight-ahead drama is as richly satisfying as it sounds.
As those who’ve seen “Distant Voices” and its companion film, “The Long Day Closes,” will testify, Davies also understands the potent emotional connection that can be made between music and image as well as any director now working, and he utilizes that skill in “Deep Blue Sea’s” bravura opening sequence.
With violinist Hilary Hahn taking the lead in a searing performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, “Deep Blue Sea” uses the piece’s second movement to accompany a nine-minute sequence that tells you everything about who Hester is and where she finds herself.
The time is around 1950, the city is a ravaged London still recovering from Germany’s devastating World War II bombing runs. The film opens with the beautiful but despondent Hester alone in the meager flat she shares with her lover, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris.”)
Hester is not just alone for the moment, she feels so profoundly abandoned in her relationship that when we meet her she’s in the process of writing a despairing suicide note to Freddie and then methodically attempting to take her own life.
As Hester attempts to die and Barber’s music scorches the soundtrack, the film flashes back to the multiple layers of what has come before. Hester is shown in a high-status but conventional marriage to Sir William Collyer (top stage actor Simon Russell Beale). After the war, she gets reacquainted with and falls heedlessly in love with Freddie, a heroic RAF fighter pilot who awakens passions in her, both physical and emotional, that she hadn’t suspected existed.
Because of that, Hester does what was almost unthinkable for a woman of her class and time and leaves her husband for her lover. Though conventional wisdom, personified by her loathsome mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford), insists “beware of passion, it always leads to something ugly,” Hester (likely named in tribute to the heroine in “The Scarlet Letter”) feels too stifled by conformity to stay put.
While the choice is clear to Hester, the results are not so black and white. Freddie outside the bedroom turns out to be something of an overgrown boy whose life, to all intents and purposes, ended when the war did. Hester’s powerful needs, how intensely she loves him, are a source of frightening discomfort to someone who says, “I hate to be tangled up in other people’s emotions.”
How the relationships between these three people — wife, lover, husband — play out is one of the things that makes “Deep Blue Sea” so involving. Although the setup may sound familiar, Davies has written the kind of adult dialogue and situations that allow for feelings to change and characters to mutate and take positions different from those you’d expect them to have.
Because this film is so involved in the exploration of emotional states, all the music Davies has chosen is crucial to his effects, and his popular music choices — a group singing “Molly Malone,” Eddie Fisher’s version of “Any Time,” Jo Stafford doing “You Belong to Me” — are once again impeccable.
Davies has also been wise and fortunate in his selection of cast, which makes the most of its opportunities. Hiddleston and Beale are excellent, but it is difficult to imagine “Deep Blue Sea” without the all-out work of Weisz, who lives this character with every fiber of her being. Hester’s love never feels less than genuine and powerful, allowing us to experience how difficult it truly is to exist between the devil and the deep blue sea.