Earlier this week, Rachel Weisz was named Best Actress of the year by the New York Film Critics’ Circle for her performance in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Weisz is one of our most talented working actresses; I first sat up and took notice of her in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2003), and two years later I was similarly impressed with her turn in The Constant Gardener, for which she won an Oscar. She’s so good in The Deep Blue Sea that she makes you wish the movie were better at framing her performance. As Hester Collyer, a fallen woman whose pursuit of romantic passion very nearly brings about her destruction, she exudes a kind of nervous desperation—she wants something that no one in the film can give her, neither her well-meaning, prosperous husband, for whom she feels affection but no love, nor her lover, a self-absorbed WWII veteran who fails to reciprocate the intensity of her devotion to him.
The film, which has been adapted by Davies from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, uses a confusing flashback structure to sketch out the details of Hester’s affair, her husband’s discovery of her infidelity, and the eventual disintegration of her relationship with her lover Freddie, which leaves her in a state of abject despair. (In the film’s opening scene, we find Hester in the process of attempting suicide by turning on the gas in the shabby little flat she and Freddie share.) The supporting roles are solidly acted—I especially liked Tom Hiddleston as the smug, fatuous lover—but it’s Weisz’s fragile, beautifully modulated performance that stands at the center of the film. It’s a real shame, then, that she isn’t given more to do. The film drags even at 96 minutes; it feels skimpy, drawn out. You keep waiting for a big aria in which Weisz will really get to assert her acting chops, but it never happens.
Nor is the trajectory of her failed relationship with Hiddleston ever made clear. The suggestion seems to be that she left her husband for him in a state of infatuation, only to realize that he wasn’t worth her time, though it’s nearly impossible to know, given the muddled sequence of events and Davies’ general reticence to communicate any narrative detail. This is possibly the only film adaptation of a play I can think of in which there isn’t enough talking. In spite of his reputation as a great director, Davies seems to me to have a poor understanding of what makes good cinema. He has one compelling sequence here—the opening montage, set to the wrenching second movement of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto. The rest of the film limps along weakly. The cinematography doesn’t help either; at times it has a lovely pearlescent quality, at others it has an odd grainy look, and in spots it looks downright ugly.
It occurred to me while watching The Deep Blue Sea that Davies is among the most English of film directors, and I don't mean that as a compliment. His films generally suffer from a certain mannered restraint and a bad sense of pacing that makes them feel heavy and devoid of energy. It’s not just that Davies gravitates toward dour source material; there seems to be something in his touch that is itself dour. Must his films be constricted and lugubrious just because his subjects are?