Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) leads a privileged life in 1950s London as the beautiful wife of high court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). To the shock of those around her, she walks out on her marriage to move in with young ex-RAF pilot, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), with whom she has fallen passionately in love.
Adultery, repressed emotion, remorse, fear of loneliness and doomed love amid the stifling moral climate of England in the 1950s: Terence Davies’ remake of a 1955 film based on Terence Rattigan’s play has all the ingredients of a potentially stirring melodrama.
Alas The Deep Blue Sea all but drowns, weighed down by a belabored plot, questionable casting and stodgy execution from a filmmaker who’s renowned for the period dramas Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes and The House of Mirth.
Rachel Weisz is a fine actress but her character is so self-centred, brittle and morose it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her endless suffering.
The narrative is fractured, alternating between the present and a series of flashbacks in no chronological order, when a linear structure may have better served the story.
The original film, unseen by this reviewer, starred Vivien Leigh, Kenneth More and Emlyn Williams and was directed by Anatole Litvak.
The opening sets a grim, dour tone as Weisz’s Hester Collyer reads aloud a suicide note to her lover Freddie, swallows pills, turns on a gas heater in her dingy flat and lies down to die.
Her mind flashes back to the warm, comfortable home she shared with her distant and much older husband Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a High Court judge, and to her first meeting with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing former Royal Air Force pilot and decorated war hero.
Hester is saved by her landlady and another tenant, begs them not to tell anyone about her 'idiotic accident,’ and pockets the letter.
Further flashbacks reveal her marriage to Sir William, a decent, kind but boring chap, had grown stale, aggravated by her poisonous relationship with his patronising mother (a marvelously waspish Barbara Jefford).
When Sir William discovers his wife’s affair, he swears he will never grant her a divorce and she moves into a rented flat with Freddie.
A tantalising question is posed by Sir William but never answered: Would their marriage have lasted if they had been able to have children?
The unraveling of Hester’s relationship with the feckless, boozy Freddie, who lost his sense of purpose when the war ended, and Sir William’s attempts to win back his wife do generate a reasonable degree of dramatic heat.
But writer-director Davies allows the pacing to lag, with long patches of little or no dialogue as Hester mopes and frets, and it’s hard to engage with the characters or to care much about each’s plight.
Also left unanswered: Why did Hester’s marriage atrophy and why was she attracted to Freddie apart from, perhaps, his good looks, superficial charm and lust?
For a film which focuses on unrequited passion and the aching need to love and be loved, the tone is lamentably un-erotic, apart from one naked coupling between the lovers and a few kisses.
As the wronged husband Beale looks old enough to be Weisz’s father (in fact, he’s nine years older) and there is virtually zero chemistry between the two, which may be deliberate casting to emphasise the gulf between the characters.
One exchange between Collyer and Hester no doubt unintentionally sums up the film’s muted mood and lack of energy. Sir William describes the break-up and his wife’s suicide attempt as a tragedy, to which she responds, 'Tragedy’s too big a word. Sad perhaps, but hardly Sophoclean."
Hiddleston imbues Freddie with a jaunty, boyish air which masks a basically hollow core until he turns nasty and cruel.
The stultifying atmosphere of post-War London is expertly recreated by James Merifield's production design and Ruth Myers’ costumes.
The score dominated by Samuel Barber’s 'Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ adds to the mournful, chilly atmosphere, tempered by several sing-along sequences in the pub and in a tube station during the Blitz.
Florian Hoffmeister’s musty cinematography drains much of the colour from the film in much the same way that Davies’ directing sucks out almost all emotion.