A bare description of the events of Terence Davies’s new film The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from the 1952 Terence Rattigan play, is not going to make it sound appetising: set in a drab, postwar Britain, it concerns a woman called Hester who finds an escape route from her oppressive marriage to a starchy High Court judge when she’s wooed by a charming young pilot. She flees from her husband and joins her lover in a rented flat, only to discover that her new man’s impulsive and fiery personality has effects on her hardly less damaging than the emotional suffocation she’d previously endured. The film starts with Hester’s half-hearted suicide attempt after her realisation of her predicament and then tracks back to show how she got there before continuing with the fall-out from her desperate act.
Given the subject matter, the unapologetically stagey nature of much of the dialogue, and Davies’s pointedly austere, unhurried and non-ingratiating style of film-making it’s surprising and pleasing that the film turns to be a fine piece of drama that holds one’s attention for the full length of its running time. This is partly due to the quality of the screenplay, which succeeds in putting sometimes very wordy and finessed speeches into the mouths of the characters without forfeiting their believability, partly down to Davies’s willingness to shoot long dialogue scenes between two people in a room with the minimum of distracting edits and musical cues (although there are a couple of wordless montages set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and a moving sequence showing Londoners keeping up their spirits up while sheltering in the underground during the Blitz by singing an Irish folk song), partly due to the care and skill of the production design, which evokes a buttoned-down, airless 1940s version of England brilliantly, and partly due to the perfectly cast leads. Simon Russell Beale manages to invest what might easily have been the unsympathetic and one-dimensional spurned husband role with humanity and dignity, and Tom Hiddleston, who looks so much like a matinée idol it’s a bit uncanny, conveys both the light and dark sides of his character without descending into cliché. Most revelatory of all is Rachel Weisz, who’s onscreen more or less continually – it’s an unshowy internalised role, and she doesn’t in fact get much share of the dialogue at all, but her various shades of suffering are got across heartbreakingly well nonetheless. It’s lightyears away from her roles in fluff like The Mummy.
The Deep Blue Sea is probably not for everyone, but if you’re looking for an antidote to vacuous feelgood blockbusters it’s well worth a look. Despite the measured pace and relative lack of incident I was left wishing it was longer when the end credits came up: always a good sign.