In adapting Terence Rattigan's 1952 play of an upper-class woman who forsakes her marriage and secure life for a man she quickly learns can't love her, the scrupulously retrospective filmmaker Terence Davies may surprise skeptics who'd see this material as a confirmation of his fustiness. Nearly 20 years after The Long Day Closes finished an acclaimed cycle of films, both nostalgic and unsparing, which mined his working-class postwar boyhood, he enters into a marriage of his sensibilities with those of Rattigan, king of the pre-"angry" British theater, and alchemizes the drama into something stranger and more unsettled. After Of Time and the City, a personal documentary steeped in anger and sorrow over the decline of his native Liverpool (those infernal, noisy Beatles!), Davies might be expected to immerse the drama in a reconstitutive haze of period detail and pop songs, but those elements coexist with the drab interiors and perilous future oppressing Rattigan's heroine Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), whose curtain-raising suicide attempt becomes Davies's initial gambit in rescuing The Deep Blue Sea from captivity in its era.
Weisz's Hester, hair unkempt, smoking in the shadows of her bleak love nest, an uncertain figure in a psychological limbo, is the focal point of Davies's version; he's cut reams of Rattigan's expository dialogue to make the film a flashback-laced drama of memory. In its opening minutes, the film repeatedly fades to black as Hester prepares to kill herself by gas and pills, then dissolves into impressions of her marriage with a friendly, inattentive judge (Simon Russell Beale) and of the reedy former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) whose seductive attentions catapulted her into a fervent affair. Davies's camera rotates above the illicit lovers' entangled limbs, captures with a bare minimum of dialogue her helplessness before the airman's desire, and then witnesses her being slapped back into life of reinforced gloom and shame. If, in tracking the rest of his heroine's pleas for forgiveness, steadfast rejections of reconciliation with the judge, and struggle to accept the dissolution of her first genuine love, the director never matches this initial fugue of desperation, Davies nonetheless surpasses his previous, partly successful adaptations of Edith Wharton and John Kennedy Toole. In a blood-red coat wrapped around this fallen bourgeois wife, Weisz makes her lunge for erotic autonomy seem a poignant, principled liberation.
Davies, with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, fills the lovers' flat with pools of chiaroscuro light, and uses the sets of mid-century London (supplemented by strategically placed excerpts of a Samuel Barber concerto) as a muted, brown-dominated proving ground for Hester's shaky pursuit of an independent life without guarantees. He finds glamour, unavoidably, in Weisz even when her robed, desperate figure has her back to us, and in the pop-music moments that are one of his trademarks: first in a communal pub sing-along with a Jo Stafford record, then when Hester dashes into a tube station and is confronted by a wartime memory of being huddled with a platform full of refugees from German bombing listening to a forlorn rendition of "Molly Malone." These moments of connection lift The Deep Blue Sea over its occasionally over-explicit moments (Barbara Jefford as the judge's mother, recommending "a guarded enthusiasm" over passion to Hes) or slight misfits in casting (Hiddleston is an elegant dish—with his aristocratic, fine-boned mug, too elegant to seem natural pitching a tantrum over his intellectual insecurity in an art museum). Mixing his reliable romanticism with a Brief Encounter homage as well as Rattigan's original, Davies manages enough reinvention to seemingly echo the flyboy's tentative words of comfort to Hester: "Never too late to start again, isn't that what they say?"