The Deep Blue Sea
Opens in New York: March 23 (today) at the Angelika and the Paris

Terence Davies’ new film The Deep Blue Sea distinguishes itself as a member of a rare cinematic breed: theatrical adaptations that work as well visually as they do dramatically. In fact, when watching the film, which was adapted by Davies from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play of the same name, I often found myself wishing Davies would toss the script out the window and let the angle of light hitting Rachel Weisz’s cigarette smoke do the emotional heavy lifting. Yet Davies never abandons the theatrical realm completely, though he subverts it with interludes of swoon-worthy pure cinema. Although Sea’s dialogue scenes are beautifully shot as well, as the film goes on they accumulate a desperate banality, weaving a web of emotional complexity that extends beyond both the camera’s rapturous flights of fancy and the script’s somewhat one-dimensional dramatic psychology.

The film opens with a suicide attempt, as Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), swallows a handful of pills and swims in and out of consciousness. Davies boldly withholds all exposition, instead offering a lush series of images introducing us to Hester, her older husband William (Simon Russell Beale), and her lover Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). The burnished cinematography and achingly beautiful strings of this sequence create an almost unbearable effect of yearning sensuality, but just as Sea appears to be pitching itself at a note of impossibly sustained longing, à la Claire Denis or Wong Kar-Wai, Davies returns to dramatic reality with a slap. As the film settles into its present-day (identified as “Around 1950”) drama, which unfolds in the wake of Hester’s suicide, these passages of expressionism become less and less frequent, to the point that I grew frustrated with Davies for surrendering to the more mundane demands of the drama. By the end of the film, however, Davies’ emotional design had become clear. For Weisz’s character, the liberating power of her affair with Page has passed long ago. She’s left tormented by his inability to return her love. The film’s subject is not the exhilarating power of passion that it teases out in its early passages, but the emotional brutality that follows.

Dramatically, the film values intensity over nuance. The three principal actors all give single-minded but terrific performances; each character could easily be defined by one or two important traits, but those traits are elegantly pushed to their limits and never beyond. Weisz in particular does a phenomenal job, making Hester a heartbreakingly vulnerable figure even though the script gives us almost no information about her outside her love life and her taste for cubism and Shakespeare. As Davies drains Hester’s world of beauty, she responds by desperately clawing at Freddy, whose care for her curdles into a mixture of pity and repulsion. The Deep Blue Sea may not be an expansive film, but in focusing on one woman’s emotional breakdown, Davies opens up the cavernous depths of the damage that passion can wreak on the human heart, wounds made all the more painful by the ecstatic heights that precede them.