Deep Blue Sea, The: Rachel Weisz Stars in Screen Version of Terrence Ratigan Play

There are two reasons to see Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” his effort at adapting to the big screen Terrence Rattigan old play of the same title.

First and foremost, is the dominant performance of Rachel Weisz as the troubled, sexually repressed married woman, who’s fatally attracted to a younger, desirable WWII vet.

The second reason is to watch a deft filmmaker, arguably England’s greatest living director, makes a valiant, but not entirely successful, attempt to modernize a tale that essentially is old-fashioned, stilted, and affected (often mannered, both consciously and unconsciously).

Though meticulously directed with his signature style, and beautifully aced by the performers who form the central triangle, “The Deep Blue Sea” is an enjoyable, often touching, but not a major work by Davies, whose output is distinguished but rather small.

Most of Davies’ films are set in post-WWII England, including his semi-autobiographical works, such as “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (his acknowledged masterpiece and my favorite film of his) and “The Long Day Closes,” not to mention his seminal documentary “Of Time and the City,” which played at the Cannes Film Fest in 2009.

Davies was a young boy when the play takes place, circa 1949-1950. And obviously, this era, with all its socio-economic hardships and particular culture and mores, assumes a special importance for Davies as a filmmaker who spent his youth growing up in working-class Liverpool.

In his latest work, “The Deep Blue Sea,” which world-premiered at the 2011 Toronto Film Fest, Davies has adapted to the big screen a play by one of Britain most famous playwrights, Terence Rattigan.

Born in 1911, Rattigan, a diplomat’s son, was educated in modern history at Oxford, before embarking on a writing career in the 1930s, as a playwright and screenwriter. Many of his works have been made into popular films, such as “The Winslow Boy,” The Browning Version” with Michael Redgrave, the Oscar-nominated “Separate Tables,” for which Wendy Hiller won the Supporting Actress Oscar, and others.

Rattigan chronicled and dissected the norms and values of bourgeois morality—fear of commitment, sexual repression–and also digressions and deviations from its restrictive codes. Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea” is the second screen version of his play, which had previously been made into a movie in 1955. Frith Banbury had directed “The Deep Blue Sea” on the London stage in 1952 with Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Hester.

An openly gay playwright, Rattigan wrote especially strong roles for women. The lead part in the film has been played on stage by Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh, Penelope Keith, and Blythe Danner.

And now the gifted Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz (“The Constant Gardener,” directed by Fernando Mereilles), essays the dramatic role of Hester Collyer, the wife of a judge, who is now the abandoned lover of a drunken former WWII pilot.

Emotionally stranded and physically isolated, Hester attempts to take her life in order to win him back, perhaps also signaling a message to her first husband, who is still in love with her, and rushes to the scene.

But Hester’s tragic act serves only to estrange her more from her object of desire, the surrounding reality, reflected in the characters of the landlady who own the place where she meets her lover. Ultimately, she is a victim of her doing.

Davies has deletes some of the supporting roles that were in the stage production and first movie, while expanding the scope of the drama both visually and psychologically. “The Deep Blue Sea” is truly an intimate chamber piece for three good actors. The two men in Hesther’s wife are equally well played by Tom Hiddleston, as the tormented and tormenting lover, and Simon Russell Beale, as the loyal husband, who occasionally experiences his own bursts of nasty temper and frustration.

Unfolding in a non-linear way, the narrative, also written by Davies, inserts flashbacks of the heroine’s life, which illuminates her increasingly barren and emotionally stifling marriage, and her libidinous affair, with all its ebbs and lows.

Working with the ace lenser Florian Hoffmeister, the film boasts a meticulously crafted lighting. There are several impressive tracking shots, such as the one which depicts an underground station during the Blitz, and some remarkable pans, which illustrate vividly the ever-changing proximity (and distance) between Hesther and her lover.

However, despite meticulous art design, lights and shadows, and music, the focus remains consistently on Hester’s character, her state of mind, vulnerability, pain, and anguish, joy and humiliation (both physical and mental), and ultimately her gaining of sharper self-consciousness .  This is conveyed in Davies’ signature style of long, masterfully constructed takes that places the viewers inside the minds and souls of his trio of characters.

Like his other works, “The Deep Blue Sea” conveys effectively the struggle and desperation of ordinary British folks, trying to rebuild their lives and society after the war, and coming to terms with the decline of the British Empire, a thematic motif in many of the New British theater and cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s (in the work of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and others).

Davies’ work is resonant with meditative, moody music, which comments on the characters and actions. For “The Deep Blue Sea,” he chose a heartbreaking and passionate soundtrack, defined by Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

The Violin Concerto articulates the depth of Hester’s dilemma, much in the same way that Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 articulates the emotional crisis of Celia Johnson’s character in the 1945 masterpiece, “Brief Encounter.” It is no coincidence that Davies has chosen to stage Hester’s second suicide attempt at a tube station, which also echoes Celia Johnson’s suicidal thoughts at Milford Junction. As dramatic characters, both women are in extremis, provoked to consider extreme actions,

Moreover, like  his film,“The Long Day Closes,” Davies once again employs popular music and pub sing-songs in order to explore the era’s cultural background. These songs place the story in a particular historical moment, but they also add a commentary on the main characters.  Jo Stafford’s “You Belong To Me” is a popular love song but also expresses Hester’s needy and sometimes suffocating love of Freddie. And a traditional folk song, “Molly Malone,” about the life and death of a passionate young woman, provides a sing-song during an air-raid but thematically it also comments on Hester’s story.