"The Deep Blue Sea" opens with Samuel Barber's beautiful Violin Concerto, the sound of a ticking clock, and the on-screen legend "London, Around 1950." It's night, and the camera tracks very slowly along a shabby street before tilting up to a third-floor window where we see Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz). We enter the apartment and watch her calmly prepare to kill herself, by both taking pills and turning on the gas. It's the suicide equivalent of wearing a belt and suspenders.
Once we get to know her better and learn the circumstances leading to her current actions, this apparent surfeit of caution seems out of character: In matters of love, romance, and sex, she has thrown caution to the wind. As the camera smoothly follows her around the room and her mind wanders to some brief flashbacks, the film is more concerned with setting a tragic/romantic mood than giving us a lot of detail. The 10-minute opening sequence is shot almost like a silent movie, with no more than a line or two spoken.
This might seem odd, since "The Deep Blue Sea" is adapted from a 1952 stage drama by Terence Rattigan, and stage dramas tend to lean heavily on dialogue. Rattigan was one of the leading British playwrights of the 1940s and '50s, until the London stage was rattled, first by John Osborne and the so-called Angry Young Men, then by Harold Pinter. Suddenly Rattigan's work – "The Browning Version," "Separate Tables," and "The Winslow Boy" are the best known on the American side of the pond – looked hopelessly bourgeois in comparison.
One good Terence deserves another, and, in this case, that would be director Terence Davies, one of the great stylists in contemporary British cinema. Davies made his reputation with a series of autobiographical films – the two distributed in the States were "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes" – that were as brutally depressing as they were aesthetically striking. Davies's storytelling techniques in these films may have been slow as molasses, but were so fresh and different as to make the ordeal of reliving his life somewhere in the vicinity of "worthwhile."
After he ran out of autobiographical material, Davies directed adaptations of novels by John Kennedy Toole ("The Neon Bible") and Edith Wharton ("The House of Mirth"), neither of which made use of his greatest talent – the ability to create a sense of being there, of experiencing a kind of hyper-reality. (The best comparison would be Terrence Malick – yes, another Terry – in "The Tree of Life.") "The Deep Blue Sea" is much more in sync with Davies's style.
What we learn about Hester is that she has thrown away her marriage to a judge (Simon Russell Beale) – together they were Sir and Lady – because of her all-consuming passion for Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a shallow, maladjusted former RAF pilot with a drinking problem. Freddie may love her in his way, but it's not a very committed way; he is beyond unreliable. It's the hopelessness of her relationship to Freddie that has driven her to the opening suicide attempt.
In addition to Davies's visual style, the film benefits from precision acting from players who get the most out of Rattigan's dialogue. The only problem with the casting is that Weisz looks too young. A crucial part of the plot's dynamic is that Hester is 10 years older than Freddie and more than 10 years younger than her husband. Weisz looks perfectly age-appropriate with Hiddleston. If you can get past that, "The Deep Blue Sea" is a fine example of a director bringing just enough of his style to revitalize possibly dated material. Grade: A- (Rated R for a scene of sexuality and nudity.)