Terence Davies is one of Britain's best living filmmakers — his work resembles no one else's. But he's had the kind of cursed career suffered by the likes of Carl Dreyer and Andrei Tarkovsky. For reasons that remain obscure, The Deep Blue Sea is his first narrative film since 2000's The House of Mirth.
The two features that made Davies' reputation — Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes — drew mostly on the pop culture of his childhood, particularly Hollywood musicals, but pushed that influence toward something resembling an avant-garde meditation on the past. (When he dealt even more directly with his childhood, in his documentary Of Time and the City, he was less successful than when he filtered it through fiction.) So The Deep Blue Sea, a period drama driven by flashbacks, should be a smart match of director and material.
The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from the 1952 Terence Rattigan play (filmed in 1955 by Anatole Litvak), opens in the apartment of Hester (Rachel Weisz), whose voice we hear say, "This time I really do want to die." The film begins with her suicide attempt, then indulges the first of many flashbacks. Hester hangs out at home with her older husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a judge. Then she takes a younger lover, a former RAF pilot named Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). As Hester comes back to life after her suicide attempt, cared for by neighbors, the film offers up flashbacks of her love life, as she abandons William for Freddie.
The openly gay Davies claims to have been celibate since 1980. Rattigan was a closeted gay man. One senses in Hester the reflection of their reticence about desire. She's torn between two men, yet her passion seems more intellectual than emotional. This is a film about people afraid of showing their feelings, a stereotypically English position. Even when Hester and Freddie conduct their affair, they speak very little. There's space in these silences to convey emotion, but The Deep Blue Sea doesn't quite manage it. This isn't Ozu.
Weisz's performance is perfectly accomplished, yet she seems miscast. Her beauty and glamour are appropriate for Hester's more youthful years — Weisz, who was 40 when the film was made, looks like she's in her early 30s — but work against the more beaten-down woman Hester becomes. Davies seems to have made no effort to age the actress convincingly.
But everything here, not just Weisz, is attractively framed and lighted. Davies' direction lacks the stunning sound-and-image combinations that powered his early films, relying too heavily on classical music to force emotion from the visuals. He does manage an amazing set piece: a lengthy scene in London's subway during the blitz. Otherwise, The Deep Blue Sea is impressive mostly as an actor's showcase.
Compared with most contemporary cinema, The Deep Blue Sea is well worthwhile. But when you know what Davies is capable of, it disappoints. The long gaps in his filmography have raised expectations that go unfulfilled here. Davies is now in his 60s; one hopes that it isn't another dozen years until his next feature.