By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 14, 2011 at 8:12AM
"Beware of passion Hester, it always leads to something ugly."
What is love, and what is its worth? That's the burning question at the core of "The Deep Blue Sea" the latest from British master Terence Davies, a drama that burns with a blue flame intensity that is deeply beautiful and shattering all at once.
Our story picks up, as a title card tell us, somewhere "around 1950" in London. World War II is still a recent memory and while the country is still nursing its wounds, for Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), it seems she's survived a difficult battle of her own. Her marriage to William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) has crumbled to the point where it's a relationship in name only. He's at least two decades her senior, and Hester longs for something more vital, passionate and yes, more physical as well, and she finds it in the boozy, charming and devilishly handsome WWII pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). It's only a matter of time before William learns of the affair and his fury only pushes Hester further into the arms of Freddie, but when the pilot learns of her literally suicidal desire for love and lust, he fears where their relationship will lead.
The story is a tricky one to take on because its certainly nothing new, but what Davies does aesthetically gives it a tremendous bit of life. Teaming with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Davies gives the film an absolutely gorgeous soft focus, amber hued glow and pumped with some deliciously bombastic, decidedly old school movie score flavoured work by Samuel Barber, "The Deep Blue Sea" feels like visual and aural hybrid of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. And while its trappings are a distinct nod to the films the characters might see themselves on a trip out to the movies, the emotional landscape contained within resonates with a contemporary intelligence and imbued with a deeply felt texture that is heart rending. And that's due in no small part to three terrific performances.
In adapting Ratigan's play, Davies has stripped it right down to its three central characters with the focus primarily on Weisz who appears on screen for pretty much every minute of the run time. In playing Hester, the Oscar-winning actress wonderfully navigates the excitement, pain and confusion of a woman who married the first man she met and fell in love with the next man who made no secret of his feelings for her. But it's between those two spheres where Weisz finds a rippling undercurrent of complex emotions, with Hester battling against social mores, her own carnal nature, the concern she still feels for William, and her own inability to discern between love and lust. Davies' and Hoffmeister love Weisz's face and with her give a powerhouse performance that relies less on words and more on the subtly changing temperaments of a woman to whom suicide becomes a viable option. We are reminded of Nicole Kidman's opera concert scene from "Birth" to find an equal; Weisz so understands Hester that we are moved both when her eyes sparkle looking at Freddie in a pub early in the film, and when she recounts a distant memory of William much later in the picture.
Beale matches Weisz in a equally well-woven character, one whose pride is offended and humbled; a judge who becomes a plaintiff for his own heart. A sequence in which William visits Hester in her new home months after her affair has started is one of the best in the film. These two characters are both in the process of re-examining their understanding of love and commitment and the sacrifices and responsibilities that a man and a woman undertake, but it's all below the surface. What many, much more dialogue-heavy films fail to grasp is what Rattigan and Davies excel at here -- unveiling layers of meaning in single scenes. Unfortunately for Hiddleston's Freddie, he's all surface (at least in this big screen version). The actor is also strong in the role, but as Freddie is presented here, he's either smiling and yelling with little in between. But even this thin characterization is rescued by a beautiful and tragically graceful third act scene with Hester that had this writer wiping something away from the corners of his eyes.
And it's the meeting place between the actors' strong turns and Davies impeccably realized film where "The Deep Blue Sea" truly becomes something special and yes, one of the best films of the festival. The artful construction of the film -- one highlight being a tracking shot/flashback sequence in the London underground; another being the already released slow dance between Hester and Freddie (and is more powerful given its context) -- is built to accomodate the performances. These aren't just prettily framed scenes but logical extensions of feelings that are being wrought and wrenched over by this trio of actors on screen.
The deliberate pace, arguably stagey dialogue (though we had no issue with it) and precisely pitched tone and style may not be for everyone -- indeed, there were a handful of walkouts -- but if you're willing to submit yourself to the film, you will be rewarded immensely. Deeply romantic with a rich and rare comprehension of the volatile and consuming nature of love and aching void that can be left in its wake, "The Deep Blue Sea" is well worth taking the plunge. [A]