The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies, 98 mins (12A)

4.00

A woman courts scandal when she leaves a dull husband for a dashing RAF pilot in an adaptation that does full justice to its 1952 stage original

The last fiction film by British director Terence Davies, 11 years ago, was The House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton’s novel about a proud, passionate woman falling foul of social laws.

His new feature The Deep Blue Sea, from Terence Rattigan’s play, is also about a proud, passionate woman falling foul of social laws – and what a double bill they’d make. Although set some 50 years apart, they have much in common: their compelling, ill-fated heroines; their astringent view of moralising respectability; and one of the most distinctive directorial sensibilities in cinema.

A Davies film is a very particular thing: a hothouse bloom that can at times verge on the florid, yet with a deep keynote of austerity. His new offering is unmistakably 100 per cent Davies – yet it feels convincingly 100 per cent Rattigan too, the essence of both Terences emerging more than intact from the encounter. Rattigan’s 1952 play is about a woman who has left her husband, a staid judge, for a dashing former fighter pilot, now boozily on the skids. As the story begins, Hester (Rachel Weisz) has had enough of her lover Freddie’s neglect, and of her own painful feelings, and has attempted suicide in the couple’s shabby west London flat.

Rattigan’s three-act play never leaves the flat, making for some stiff walk-ons and -offs and stilted expositions. Davies, though faithful to much of the text, offers a more ample affair that goes out into the world, and at times, into the past, notably in a dream-like interlude on a Tube platform in the Blitz. It gives more life to the characters, showing them in their natural environment. Rather than tell us that Freddie is most at home in a pub, it’s more illuminating to have him putting on a saloon-bar show, playing the self-mocking air ace for Hester's benefit.

Davies adds other, more expansive scenes of his own: a telling moment for Hester's landlady (a terrifically commanding Ann Mitchell) and a grimly comic sequence when Hester and her husband William visit his mother. Barbara Jefford's frosty matriarch embodies the entire edifice of repressive Englishness from which Hester's whole being recoils. There are some delicious lines here, with a dash of Joe Orton in their flamboyant stuffiness ("The battenberg – a pleasure I've never outgrown," Jefford coos over the cakes).

Simon Russell Beale – his well-trimmed beard suggesting a hangover of Edwardian man – makes William rather more tender and understanding than the dry stick he might have been, with a marvellous touch of little-boy awkwardness in front of Mama. As Freddie, Tom Hiddleston, looking fresh out of the Rank Charm School, carries the dapper insubstantiality very jauntily, making you see the glamour and the hollowness of a man addicted to his own former glory.

As for Weisz's Hester, this is a real star turn in the old silver-screen sense – not least because she's photographed by Florian Hoffmeister with a period gleam that highlights her aura as tragic heroine, often in gauzy soft focus. Weisz always exudes intelligence on screen, and her Hester is no exception. What's particular here is that she plays a woman surprised to find herself engulfed by her sexual desire – and Weisz's Hester at once rejoices in it, yields to it and ruefully analyses the mess it's landed her in.

All three performers are terrific, each perfectly attuned to the tone of the film. Yet, taken together, the corners of the triangle never quite convince as a fit. Hester has tended to be played by older, at least older-seeming actresses; she has been used to a dull married life and is now taken helplessly unawares by passion. But Weisz seems so naturally full of youth and sophisticated libido that you can't ever imagine her Hester wasting much time with fusty William. Equally, Hiddleston's Freddie seems a touch lightweight for such a woman – not just boyish, but a boy. The casting gives the film a curious Freudian thrust, in which the drama appears to be about a woman effectively caught between a father and a surrogate son.

But in any case, this film is not strictly realistic Rattigan. It's less a straight adaptation than a sort of opera version – without arias, but with plenty of music nonetheless. Davies uses whole swathes of a Samuel Barber concerto, which you may find over-rich if you feel that film scores should be discreetly efficient. But the eight-minute opening, a largely wordless flashback leading up to Hester's suicide attempt, is an audacious prelude to the action, emotionally hyper-charged and yet distanced, because led by music not words. The singalongs can feel a bit of a Davies mannerism, yet even sceptics will gulp when a hearty chorus of "You Belong to Me" fades into the Jo Stafford recording – an eloquent glimpse of the romantic love that's about to slip through Hester's fingers.

As for the interiors, you can smell the mildew and discretion in these murky brown apartments, designed superbly by James Merifield. The stuffiness and quiet desperation of Rattigan's world are here, along with the compassion and social rage of Davies's vision. The combination may be too ripe or rarefied for some, but The Deep Blue Sea is uncompromising and utterly idiosyncratic. To use an epithet that's very English, and very much of the period, it's a most distinguished film.

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