The Deep Blue Sea (R)
For U.K. audiences, films set in 1950s post-war London are akin to the movies set during the Summer of Love in the States: We know the tune by heart. In Terence Davies' adaptation of the late Terence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz plays a sullen, chain-smoking adulteress seriously considering suicide amid the rubble that still dots her city, even a decade after World War II.
What follows in this quiet chamber piece is fait accompli for the genre: screaming matches, a slap across the face or two, tiny revelations, Samuel Barber orchestration, wartime flashbacks, emasculated men and needy women.
Weisz stars as Hester Collyer, wife of a wealthy, agreeable judge (Simon Russell Beale), whose comfortable but boring existence leaves her susceptible to the cocksure charms of war hero flyboy Freddie Page, played with simple darkness by Tom Hiddleston.
It's never entirely clear what Hester hopes to gain from this relationship, aside from a respite from her dull, passionless marriage. In a scene meant to contextualize her anguish — though it only ends up taking the air out of her self-justification from an audience perspective, if not her own — her husband's disapproving mother warns Hester, "Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly," adding, "A guarded enthusiasm is safer."
That conversation is about sports, in which Hester claims she's disinterested, even as her actions suggest otherwise. She attempts to place her self-pity on a shelf during her courtship with Freddie, claiming their love is "natural," but their dates at art galleries and pub sing-alongs with his war buddies suit the pair about as naturally as Freddie's tortured readjustment to civilian life.
Likewise, she claims deep, daughterly affection for the judge, but even that fills her with self-loathing. She's too impulsive for her husband, too clingy and unstable for her lover. What's left for her but to take deep breaths from a gas line?
Are those really the only choices? They are when you're the creation of an old-school, stiff-upper-lip English playwright on the verge of obsolescence.
Davies, who grew up in the movie's time period, films it beautifully. His dark shades are rich and suggestive, as is the lovers' flesh and Hester's ever-present cigarette smoke. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister excels at the heavy atmosphere, while production design by James Merifield and David Hindle's art direction is top-notch.
Weisz, meanwhile, is one of the most vulnerable, transcendent actresses working today, but Davies reduces her to a pouty melancholiac of the higher order. The director, who also wrote the screenplay, diagrams the men in her life to be of two minds: wearily sympathetic and irritably impatient.
Hester's needs are so vague and elusive that her suicide attempt reads not as escalation but as the culmination of childish restlessness. Both men know it, and express it in far different ways. None of them can get through to Hester, likely because there's nothing to get through. For all her innate intelligence, Weisz's character is an empty, juvenile vessel, and one can sense that the actress is stranded.
The Deep Blue Sea is likewise a hollow, albeit pretty film. It's a stationary outing from the man who made post-war London pop in 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives and made Edith Wharton sing in 2000's The House of Mirth.
Here, it seems that the gas has been left on a bit too long.