The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies's silver screen adaptation stays just this side of parody

Terence Davies's adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea, fairly glows. Visually, it crackles like the embers of a fire that has been banked well down.

For all the film’s stillness and quietude – and it is paced like the formation of a glacial valley – the opening 15 minutes are operatic. Samuel Barber’s 'Violin Concerto' vivifies the muted blues and browns of the scene as Hester (Rachel Weisz, luminously beautiful), pads around her rented room in a heavy dressing-gown.

It becomes immediately apparent that she is about to attempt suicide. She turns the gas oven on, her eyes blotted with tears, her lips trembling. When we cut to a flash-back (the first of many) of a sporty looking chap in a blazer sipping a gin and tonic on the club-house lawn, we realise that what lies ahead is going to be frightfully British amd middle-class.

Therein lies both the strengths and weaknesses of this film. Terrence Rattigan’s plays, despite their crafty coherence, have been parodied since the mid-1950s, when the Angry Young Men tried to shoo the Brylcreem Boys out of theatres forever.

They didn’t succeed, of course. Where many of their plays now seem shouty and misogynistic, Rattigan’s brittle chamber pieces are now rightly celebrated. But the pervasive stiff-upper-lippedness, particularly in the early part of this film, threatens the credibility of the piece. Nobody actually says 'Anyone for tennis?', but there are awkward moments when it feels as though they might.

Hester is the much younger wife of a dull High Court Judge (Simon Russell-Beale). She meets Freddie, a hard-drinking former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) with whom she falls deeply, recklessly in love, though he is unable to return her feelings.

Soon she realises that having experienced an all consuming 'amour fou' she cannot go back to the placid waters of her marriage. Equally she cannot continue to suffer a burning passion for a man unable to reciprocate her love. This is where we come in.

The Deep Blue Sea is gorgeous to look at. The sets are shabby and cluttered but luminously lit; golden halos shine off clocks and crockery and skin is bone-china white. Davies’ usual stylistic tropes are there too: the symmetrical composition of scenes, the filter of cigarette smoke colouring each frame, the extended pub sing-alongs with their curiously integrated 1950s pub crowds. Nice to see that old Blitz spirit hasn’t dissipated in the seven years since the war.

The acting is superb throughout. Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie is suitably prickly. His early stubbornness replaced by uncomprehending fury, followed by the realisation that he has, somehow, broken something that he cannot fix.

His clean-limbed athleticism and self-hating alcoholism make him viable as the object of Hester’s obsession, not something you could say for lumpy jumpered Kenneth More, who played this part in the original film adaptation. Simon Russell-Beale as Sir William Collyer, the cuckolded mummy’s boy High Court Judge, is elegant and measured, subtly moving from icy hauteur to sympathetic understanding.

But this is Rachel Weisz’ film, and she judges every part of the role expertly in a performance that is nuanced, delicate and assured. Hester’s knowledge of passion is a bitterly won loss of innocence. But hers is an autonomous eviction from paradise.

At the start of the film Hester has a choice. By the end she has no choice left.

The Deep Blue Sea screens at Queen's Film Theatre on Thursday, December 15.