"The Deep Blue Sea" is a suffocating movie, and it's meant to be. Set around 1950 in England and based on the play by Terence Ratigan and directed by British director Terence Davies ("House of Mirth"), it has a claustrophobic mood that mimics the emotional state of the unhappy Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who is attempting to gas herself in her small, dark flat when the film opens.
Hester has left her much-older husband, William, a dull though kind judge (Simon Russell Beale), for the younger, more virile Freddy (Tom Hiddleston), a former airman with whom she is living in sin. Careless, high-spirited Freddy has forgotten her birthday, and this omission signals to Hester that Freddy doesn't love her the way she loves him, and so she lights the gas fire and breathes deeply. We learn that Hester's unhappiness goes deeper than mere pique, but a woman who tries to end her life because her beau forgot an important date is a hard woman to pity.
And that's the difficulty in warming up to "The Deep Blue Sea": The first thing we see Hester do is foolish and inconceivable, which makes it hard to get invested in her future. Naturally the forgotten birthday is just a symbol of what's going wrong in Hester's life. Like many women of her time, she went from her father's house to her husband's, and the marriage she entered into was sedate if financially comfortable. Passion played no role; lust is a new and unfamiliar emotion, and she can't live with the fact that Freddy doesn't love her the way she loves him, which makes her seem more of a simpleton than she is probably meant to be.
The film follows the aftermath of her suicide attempt - Freddy, who feels the best of his life ended when the war did, is furious, and William tries hard not to reveal how badly he has been hurt - and it moves at a languid pace through the changing emotions of the trio. The burden on the cast is great; they have to breathe life into dark, oppressive rooms that underscore Hester's sense of entrapment, and happily they're up to the task. Davies gets the look and mood of postwar England just right, though Freddy's cheery flyboy lingo seems like something out of a bad melodrama.
In one haunting war flashback inside a train tunnel, Davies' camera pans through a series of weary, frightened faces as bombs rain down and finally lands on William and Hester standing bravely together as one of the refugees sings "Molly Malone." In that moment we understand that Hester has not left William thoughtlessly, that they're still tied by the past they shared. Yet the film would like us to believe that Hester will go on from her fateful decision in the film's opening moment, because life is like that - it goes on.
But "The Deep Blue Sea" has given us no real reason to care what happens next.
THE DEEP BLUE SEA
2 1/2 stars
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale.
Director: Terence Davies.
Screenwriter: Terence Davies. Based on the paly by Terence Rattigan.
Producers: Sean O'Connor, Kate Ogborn.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 98 minutes.
Rated R: Sexual situations, adult themes.