A nine-year-old Terrence Rattigan was given two options: stop attending the theater or receive a beating. He chose the latter. Last year marked the centennial of the birth of the late British playwright, so filmmaker Terence Davies commemorated the occasion in the most flattering way he could: by making a movie. “The Deep Blue Sea” is one of the most popular of Rattigan’s works, and Davies’ film adaptation of the 1952 play brings the character-driven drama to a new audience with a fairly strong array of performances.
Set not long after the end of World War II, “The Deep Blue Sea” follows Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman who in the opening scene attempts to kill herself by gas poisoning. We soon learn that Hester’s depression stems from the miseries of her romantic life. She has left her well-to-do husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) and their privileged life together because their marriage lacked passion. She has has turned instead to Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a young former Royal Air Force pilot who satisfies her sensual but not her emotional needs The film follows the dramatic changes in Hester’s relationships with the two men that result from her botched suicide.
The story of “The Deep Blue Sea” is related with the help of flashbacks to the dissolution of Hester’s relationship with Sir William and to the beginning of her romance with Freddie. Though the flashbacks acquaint the audience with the circumstances that culminated in Hester’s act of desperation at the beginning of the film, some of the transitions from past to present or vice-versa feel awkward or needless. Several of the movie’s flashbacks are interrupted by a view of Hester in the present smoking a cigarette, gazing out a window or reflectively staring downwards; in these cases, a simple cut to the next scene from the past would have been less disruptive.
To bring the characters of the play “The Deep Blue Sea” to life in the film, Davies wisely chose as his leads three individuals experienced in both stage and screen acting. Hiddleston exudes a boyish charm as Freddie, bringing a giddy enthusiasm to the role as Freddie laughs at his own inane jokes or gleefully reenacts war scenes with his buddy Jackie (Harry Hadden-Paton). In Freddie’s altercations with Hester, Hiddleston reveals an equally childish temper in his histrionics and furious expressions. Beale is excellent as Sir William, as well. He establishes the character as a quiet and even-tempered man, making it all the more powerful in the few scenes when his character does become emotional.
Other notable performances include that of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother, who in one dinner scene exchanges barbs with her daughter-in-law as helpless Sir William watches; and Jolyon Coy, who brings laughter as the wisecracking neighbor who sees to Hester’s medical needs after the incident.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of the central character is not as compelling. Weisz’s face is obscured in pivotal scenes. As she makes a phone call to her lover in one scene, her back faces the camera. While speaking with Sir William, she casts her face down so that it is practically unreadable. When talking to Jackie about her relationship troubles with Freddie, she stands outside in a dark alley so that she is visible only in silhouette.
It seems apparent, therefore, that Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister deliberately set up a number of shots in which Weisz’s countenance would be inscrutable to the audience, perhaps to help characterize Hester as withdrawn and distant as a result of her world-weariness. If this was their intention, they are successful, but they pay a price for the decision as it becomes difficult to feel connected to the protagonist. Sadly, some of the most memorable moments in the film came from the times that Wesiz faces the screen and gives a self-deprecating smile, delivers a witty remark, or cries belivably.
“Freddie was very frank with me, so I know the whole situation,” Jackie says to Hester about her suicide attempt. “Do you?” she asks sardonically. This exchange is rather representative of “The Deep Blue Sea” as a whole. Weisz’s distant character avoids being frank with us for so much of the movie that even by the end it feels as if her situation is still unclear. Ultimately, nuanced and captivating performances by other members of the cast save this solid film and provide a fitting homage to the memory of Rattigan.