In a coal-smeary London still recovering from the Blitz, in rooms of hanging smoke in which despair nestles in the wallpaper, in the backseats of cars and back corners of bars, in the lonely hollows of tube stations and the yellow gloom of side streets we find this unnervingly gorgeous, desperate woman struggling to find something to do with the most potent item in her possession: desire. Neither gender has it very easy when it comes to the expression, much less the fulfillment of real longing in postwar England, but the women, those meant to be desired rather than to do the desiring, hold a special challenge (a theme you'll find fleshed out in greater depth by our articulate friend over at Feminéma).
This is the milieu of The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. It begins, in a sense, where Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth left off: with a woman alone in a room with suicide. This, what we used to call a woman’s picture, is a story of transgression as recklessly valiant as it is inevitably destructive: Hester (a particularly brilliant, courageous, and sexy Rachel Weisz) is married to William (Simon Russell Beale), a judge, portly, much older than she, a mama’s boy, and very tender-loving in a way that has nothing to do with passion. Hester leaves William for Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a lanky former RAF pilot who happens to be a war hero, a would-be bon vivant in silly ascots, a guy who lets a woman know when she gets his engine running, and a cad, neglectful, and not much more sensitive to the scope of Hester’s needs than William. So, if you’ll forgive the blunt language, this is about a woman trying to choose between a man who forgets her birthday and a man who forgets to fuck her. And it’s just about perfectly realized by Davies and his collaborators, at once raw and elegant, generous and merciless: people have their reasons, and Davies finds reasons to sympathize with everyone.
1950s England is also the milieu where Davies seems most at home, the milieu of his childhood, the one that allows him to stage people singing the good old songs in pubs (the director’s favourite on-screen activity). Shot by Florian Hoffmeister, the film glows with mostly muted colours under flickering penumbra—for the first 20 minutes I wondered if the projector’s lamp was burning out—and the elegiac strains of a Samuel Barber violin concerto. The décors, the details in behaviour—the lick of a shoulder, or the bowed head that accompanies the giving of an achingly ill-chosen gift—are all so much of a piece. But I think what I admire most about The Deep Blue Sea is its delicate balance of the subtle and the explicit. Hester’s curtains are freighted with symbolism, and characters actually speak aloud phrases like “Beware of passion.” Yet in the hands of these fine actors even the most on-the-nose dialogue brims with subtext. At its best, Davies’ work exudes an intuitive understanding of the richness of melodrama, that potentially sublime interplay between surface and depth. Even in the film’s seemingly straightforward bookend device we can trace an over-arcing lyricism: in the final shot the camera pulls back from Hester’s window, glides down the face of her rooming house, then down the street, then toward this rubble where there was once a building, and I couldn’t help but notice: that bomb just missed her.