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Terence Davies' films aim for and often achieve a state of music, the camerawork in harmony with the soundtrack, the images connected by emotion rather than narrative.
Adapting Terence Rattigan's 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea, he throws out the drama's tidy structure and much of the dialogue, and shows the events through the eyes of the adulterous Lady Hester Collyer, played by Rachel Weisz.
It's 1950, but parts of London are still in rubble from the Blitz of a decade before, and the emotional rubble is nearly as stark. In the long, mysterious opening shot, the camera begins on a street dead-ended by debris, pivots and glides to show Hester's boarding house, then rises and moves in on a window from which she peers out. In a series of fade-ins and fade-outs, she closes the curtains, puts towels in the crack below the door and feeds coins into the gas meter. She means to die. As she lies down to wait for the end, the memories come, flashbacks depicting how she got to this grim place.
It's no coincidence her name is Hester: Her affair with Freddie Page, an ex-Royal Air Force pilot played by Tom Hiddleston, leaves her so exposed she might as well be wearing a scarlet "A." But she doesn't care about the stigma or reduction in her circumstances. Her love is too intense.
She won't return to her kind husband, Sir William, played by Simon Russell Beale, who's much older but in spirit still a child, still dominated by a repressive mother. In a flashback over dinner, the old dowager, played by Barbara Jefford, pointedly quizzes Hester on her interest in the gentry's sporting life.
"I've always thought of sport as one of the more pointless of human activities," replies Hester.
"That was almost offensive," the dowager replies. "I take it you don't play."
"Occasionally," says Hester. "I just find it very hard to be passionate about it."
"Beware of passion, Hester," says the dowager. "It always leads to something ugly."
"What would you replace it with?" asks Hester.
"A guarded enthusiasm," says the dowager. "It's safer."
That dialogue points up Hester's dilemma, but the rest of The Deep Blue Sea is far more suggestive. The pace is slow — legato, you'd say, if this were in fact music — but the frames are concentrated, scored by lush passages from Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and thick with period bric-a-brac evoking Davies' affection for the pop culture of postwar Britain.
Hester remembers Freddie, slender and upright in his double-breasted jacket and crazily handsome, taking her hand and saying she really is the most attractive woman he has met — the height of his eloquence.
But words aren't the point. In the most startling shots, the camera revolves above their entwined naked bodies, their sculpted limbs the same color, ivory-gray with a tinge of pink, so you can barely tell male from female. The consummation is total.
Hester tries to connect with Freddie in other ways, going to the pub and drinking with his mates, taking him to art galleries to see the Impressionists. Whatever happened in the war has left Freddie damaged, abusive, an alcoholic, but she'll forgive him everything except his leaving her. More than anything else in her life, she says, her love for Freddie is "natural."
The word "natural" had special meaning for playwright Rattigan. The author of such elegant dramas as Separate Tables and The Browning Version was gay, but could never write about that, and so found other ways of exploring the impact of secrecy and smothered passion on the psyche.
Rattigan fell out of fashion with the arrival of the so-called Angry Young Men of the British stage, but Davies' version of The Deep Blue Sea restores the playwright's potency.
The central trio is sublime. Simon Russell Beale's Sir William is a poignant mixture of aristocrat and adolescent, and Hiddleston perfectly evokes the archetype of the upright British soldier — at both his most gallant and his most unstable in the aftermath of the empire's upheavals.
But this is Weisz's movie. She's as luminous as a Pre-Raphaelite portrait, yet she brings to Hester a high-wire, modern tremulousness, as if that portrait were melting into something Impressionistic — much like the movie itself, a lyric re-imagining of Rattigan and a tone poem of genius. (Recommended)