Another title for “The Deep Blue Sea” might be “The Thick Gray Funk.” Adapted from closeted gay Brit playwright Terence Rattigan’s stage weepy, it was filmed once before in 1955, starring Vivien Leigh. Here the lead role is taken by Rachel Weisz as Hester, whom we first meet settling down for a little death-nap in front of her unlit gas heater.
As Hester lies there, adapter-director Terence Davies (“The House of Mirth,” “The Long Day Closes”) delivers fragmented scenes of the events that have laid her low. Married to a respectable older judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), Hester has left him — and the snobbish, cruel world represented by his hypercritical mother (Barbara Jefford) — for young RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston, a.k.a. Thor’s evil brother, Loki).
The problem is that Freddie now prefers to spend his hours on the golf course or at the pub, whereas Hester’s infatuation hasn’t cooled a bit. This affair is meant to have struck her like a thunderclap — or with the emotional overkill of the Samuel Barber violin concerto that’s used in the movie. But due to Davies’ kaleidoscopic deconstruction of the dramatic timeline, it’s hard for a while to get a handle on the story, which unfolds “around 1950,” according to an onscreen caption.
Gay like Rattigan, but a self-proclaimed celibate for 30 years, Davies may be the wrong person to direct material about life-altering passion colliding with strait-laced social mores. The only evidence of any real explosiveness or heat in the film is not what you’d expect; it’s the image of a Blitz-bombed house near Hester’s apartment — an image Davies leans on as a symbol for her ruptured domestic life.
As in his “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988), Davies fetishizes Britain’s mid-century sexual and aesthetic repression, with its nicotine-darkened wallpaper, pub sing-alongs and stiff upper lips. Those same postwar trappings were used by Dennis Potter when he dug under the surface to explore desire and duplicity in his TV miniseries “The Singing Detective.” Iain Softley’s 1997 film version of “The Wings of the Dove” liberated the chilly sexual game-playing from the overstuffed prose of Henry James’ novel. In other words, repression and passion can share the screen. They just don’t coexist that plausibly in “The Deep Blue Sea.” The film is a museum piece rather than a way to look at prior conventions through a contemporary lens.
The movie needs an actress who conveys the simmering contradictions and desperation that could lead Hester to attempt suicide. Weisz has some good moments, and she’s always interesting to watch, but she lacks that extra level the material cries out for. She seems too sturdy, too practical, to provoke much concern for Hester’s ultimate well-being.
The film’s best scenes play between Weisz and the terrific Beale. When the abandoned husband comes to visit Hester following her suicide attempt, he expresses genuine concern, asking questions about her relationship with Freddie. You can see what a great friend he would be — it’s just too bad he isn’t also the man who sparks Hester’s desire. In the end, while respectfully made, “The Deep Blue Sea” is a damp squib. Oh, well. As Hester herself puts it, “ ‘Tragedy’ is too big a word. ‘Sad,’ perhaps.”
“The Deep Blue Sea.” Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale. Directed by Terence Davies. Rated R. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.