“Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.”
Hester (Rachel Weisz) isn’t about to heed her mother-in-law’s advice. Having been subjected to quite enough passive aggression for one evening, she decides to go pack. Impatiently, she makes a call to Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) back in London, eager to spend time together once again. Hester’s husband, William (Simon Russell Beale), is far less taken with the idea, and as he announces his presence behind her in the room, Hester doesn’t whip around in shock or fright but simply raises her head before turning to face the betrayal.
It’s a modest gesture that – like many in Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea – carries a weight of the inevitable about it. Davies (The House of Mirth) treats Rattigan’s 1952 play as more of a poem, skipping like a stone across the pristine surface of a love affair, revealing hidden depths and doubts amid the end of a marriage (though not a divorce), the end of an affair, the attempted end of a life and the fleeting moments of happiness in between.
The film opens with the aforementioned suicide attempt, as Hester is prevented from taking her own life by her neighbors and is forced to contend with the consequences. A vicar’s daughter, she had already forsaken a well-cultured though passionless marriage to Sir William for the company of RAF pilot Freddie, and now she fears for the wilting grass on the other side as Freddie reveals himself to be an impetuous drunk stuck in the glory days of WWII. (The story takes place “around 1950.”) He craves the thrill of the sky as much as she desperately needs him to reciprocate her considerable emotional investment, and when Hester comes to realize that Freddie is incapable of that, she is driven to her rash response.
Many films would end so dramatically, but Sea is primarily fixated on that fine line between finding something better and something merely different. Both Davies and Rattigan were/are gay men, and it’s not hard to read Hester’s longing as their own in an era of stifling post-war complacency. Her passion, communicated splendidly through Weisz’ repressed performance, is not only out of sync with that of her two lovers, but it seems to defy societal norms and reasonable expectations in general. She harbors a lust for love itself and has primed herself for failure in these, the days before liberation and revolution would upset the status quo from one of either stuffy museums or smoky pubs, depending on the partner. (With regards to said partners, Hiddleston’s turn grows increasingly fiery as time progresses and little else does, while Beale’s older man conversely takes pity on his wife’s mounting dissatisfaction.)
It’s a sense of yearning reminiscent of the doomed leads in Richard Yates’ similarly-set Revolutionary Road, and Davies bolsters it well with selections from Samuel Barber’s sweeping violin concerto and an old-fashioned style that is unmistakably evocative of 1945’s Brief Encounter. Florian Hoffmeister’s impeccably handsome cinematography captures a very delicate sense of romantic decay, viewing the entire affair through a rather perfect haze that can only seemingly be chalked up to the constant presence of cigarette smoke. Though William’s mother may have warned that passion can only lead to something ugly, unrequited love becomes something beautiful indeed in the hands of Davies, Hoffmeister and Weisz.