The eloquence, poignancy and intelligence of the great British playwright Terence Rattigan comes to the screen once again in the latest revival of the awkward, brilliant and demanding play The Deep Blue Sea, with Rachel Weisz in the role once created so memorably by Vivien Leigh. It is quirky, dark, much maligned by feminists and too slow for some tastes, but it’s a work worth seeing again, and Ms. Weisz is wonderful in it.
The part of Hester Collyer is a demanding vehicle coveted by actresses of stature since The Deep Blue Sea was first produced on the London stage in 1952 with the great Peggy Ashcroft, then on Broadway with the luminous Margaret Sullavan, and later in a flawed but fascinating 1955 film directed by Anatole Litvak and starring a fragile Vivien Leigh in one of her rare film appearances. The film has somehow been lost in the transatlantic vaults. It is seldom featured even in revival houses, it has never been released on home video, the prints I’ve seen are damaged and discolored, and it is never shown on TV. This is a shame, because it is one of the few examples of a film that knew what to do with Leigh’s inimitable neurotic qualities. The play was last revived on Broadway in 1998 with Blythe Danner, whose smoky, distinctive voice sounded like the reward of a life dedicated to the consumption of first-class bourbon.
Rachel Weisz seems tougher and more physically fit to withstand life’s cruel blows than any of her predecessors, although it is easy to see why the role of Hester lured her like a magnet. It’s a long, tormented and exhausting tour de force requiring an expansive array of emotions. Ms. Weisz meets every challenge admirably. The film, written and directed by Terence Davies, does not always match her resolve, but I have always been haunted by it, and still am. It begins with the meticulously planned but botched suicide attempt of a woman who is discovered on the floor of a seedy Victorian flat in a badly bombed section of postwar London, and works its way backward as we try to piece together the puzzle of how she came to take the gas pipe in the first place. Unrequited love is the reason. Isn’t it always?
Hester is a proper woman of breeding, education and privilege, the daughter of a clergyman and ex-wife of a celebrated high-court judge much older and wiser than she, who still loves her unconditionally despite the stress and scandal she’s put him through. The acclaimed Simon Russell Beale plays the role triumphantly. In flashbacks, we see how Hester chucked respectability and sacrificed the security of marriage to a stuffy but adoring old bore for infidelity, romance and passion with a sporty but irresponsible younger lover (Tim Hiddleston). Once a test pilot much admired in the British press but now an impoverished drunk, he’s desperate for the kind of respectability Hester has turned her back on. When she opts for a way out of the doomed affair by attempting to take her own life, he’s so humiliated that he abandons her. This is the kind of chap who can destroy your life, then drop you a note saying “Sorry to have caused you so much bother.” He doesn’t love her enough to make her feel safe, but she loves him so much she smothers and mothers him until he runs away. There’s really no solution but tragedy, yet director Davies, who has adapted Rattigan’s famous play with devotion, drags in the same moral and philosophical baggage in the third section of the plot that earned the original production mixed reviews. Hester is forced to pay the high cost of living freely, convinced the key to survival is to denounce love completely. Her suicide attempt is a sad plea to win back the two men in her life, but it serves only to distance her further from them both. She ends up a total stranger to her own skewered sense of reality. This kind of noble sacrifice seems outdated and naive in 2012, and everyone—especially the liberated women of today—will want more for Hester than giving up or giving in. The Deep Blue Sea is not a movie for Gloria Steinem.
It is, however, tailored like soft suede trousers for Ms. Weisz. Rattigan was a master of the kind of graceful, erudite, conversational kind of stage writing that went out of style with the arrival of John Osborne and the angry young men of kitchen-sink depravity. In an age of grunts, honks and the inarticulate smut that passes for dialogue, it’s refreshing to hear some of his polite words again. Whatever the merits or disappointments of Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea is well served by this elegant film version. The abstract cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister takes the viewer into fanciful landscapes—notice particularly the long tracking shot in an underground railway station during the Blitz—while the intimacy and pain in Ms. Weisz’s beautiful face draws us into the shadows of her soul. As a woman trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, she is always in full focus—reserved, sexually frustrated, hiding her agony one minute and throwing herself at her lover’s feet a moment later, begging him for love. Pathetic and frustrating, she’s not a character easy to like, but her wrenching sobs echo through your heart like gunshots.
The Deep Blue Sea is uneven and somewhat tentative in its evocation of a certain kind of fading moss rose among English womanhood, but it’s mature, sophisticated filmmaking that is so welcome I recommend it highly.
THE DEEP BLUE SEA
Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Terence Davies (screenplay) and Terence Rattigan (play)
Directed by Terence Davies
Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Jolyon Coy