Even though its story revolves around adultery and attempted suicide, “The Deep Blue Sea” reps a reasonably happy marriage between Terence Rattigan’s 1952 theatrical chamber piece and the instincts of writer-helmer Terence Davies, best known for his emotionally lush studies of post-WWII Blighty (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”). Davies is in fine form here, with luminous perfs, especially from Rachel Weisz, rounding out a classy package whose only major problem is it may be a bit too true to its period sensibility and legit origins — despite its opened-up structure — to connect with contempo auds beyond upmarket inlets.
Born a century ago this year, Rattigan considered “The Deep Blue Sea” the hardest of his plays to write, perhaps because it was partly inspired by complex feelings in response to the suicide of an ex-lover, Kenneth Morgan. A hit in its debut, the play was adapted for the screen with mixed results in 1955 by helmer Anatole Litvak, with Vivien Leigh in the lead role, but recent legit productions in London have restored its reputation as one of Rattigan’s best.
While the source material largely follows classical unities of time and space, Davies, unsurprisingly given his previous work, opts to flit fluidly between different timeframes, although the core action is set on a day unfolding “around 1950,” per onscreen titles. Hester Page, aka Lady Collyer (Weisz), takes a hefty dose of aspirin and plugs shillings in the coin-operated gas meter in an attempt to kill herself in a rundown Ladbroke Grove apartment building. Her plan is foiled when her landlady, Mrs. Elton (played with vivid dignity by Ann Mitchell), and some other neighbors smell the fumes.
A tumble of asynchronous flashbacks, some based on Rattigan’s original dialogue and some entirely invented by Davies, reveal that Hester is technically still married to eminent judge Sir William Collyer (contempo stage legend Simon Russell Beale, making a rare film appearance), whom she left 10 months before when she fell madly in love with ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, rakish yet vulnerable). Freddie and Hester have been going by Mr. and Mrs. Page ever since, but the honeymoon period is over, and the somewhat shiftless Freddie has been spending more time away from Hester, drinking and golfing with his friends.
The crux of the problem is that Hester — who, it’s implied, has discovered sexual pleasure for the first time through the relationship — simply loves Freddie far more than he loves her. For the merest touch of his hand, she’s been willing to sacrifice her social standing, wealth and even dignity. There’s a touch of masochism in her devotion to Freddie, which Weisz’s small-statured fragility, tremulous voice and barely controlled desperation emphasizes. A period type, Hester here evokes many other bruised, fallen or nearly fallen women of the silver screen, perhaps most notably Laura Jesson in 1945’s “Brief Encounter” — a particularly resonant touchstone here, as Davies deploys great swaths of Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14” in a way that echoes David Lean’s use of Rachmaninoff.
The big question is whether Hester, a weepy victim of her own vices and devices, will still strike a chord with modern viewers. Even Peggy Ashcroft, who played Hester onstage, found the character unsympathetic for trying to commit suicide just because her lover was “being neglectful,” and some modern femme auds may feel just as impatient with Hester’s clinginess. Gay men are likely to be the most forgiving of the character’s drama-queen flaws, which makes it all the odder that Davies minimizes the pic’s gay-friendliness by drastically reducing the role of Miller (Karl Johnson), an ex-doctor who, it’s hinted in the original play, lost his job because of his homosexuality.
Pruning Miller’s role may have been a necessity, however, to make more room for those bits that make the film truly Davies’ own. Thus we get several scenes of people singing in smoke-choked pubs, as well as one marvelous, lengthy tracking shot of an Underground station during the Blitz, recalling the working-class milieu so beautifully elegized in the director’s Liverpool-set pics, including his 2008 docu “Of Time and the City.” Davies has beefed up the role of Mrs. Elton, who now bears a striking resemblance to the other earthy, long-suffering matriarchs in his oeuvre. Even the way lenser Florian Hoffmeister uses key lights, shadows and ever-present panes of glass recalls the soft-textured look of early Davies films, especially the ones shot by William Diver.
Other craft contributions throughout are period-perfect, from the patterns on the women’s costumes to the look of the set used to re-create bombed-out London after the war. David Charap’s editing results in a slightly monotonous tempo, but this again fits Davies’ modus operandi.