The London Olympics opening ceremony–lavish, irreverent, shamelessly commercial–made one want to see more things Brit. The Deep Blue Sea took care of that.
The film is directed by Terence Davies, who also adapted Terence Rattigan’s play. Set in 1950, it opens in a bombed-out, ruined London, the camera panning from a street lamp up a blackened brick wall to a window framing a woman’s face. “This time, I really do want to die,” we hear in voiceover.
In a dingy brown flat with the sort of wallpaper that made Oscar Wilde give up the ghost, Lady Hester Collyer swallows pills and turns up the gas. Like a child pretending, she curls up on the floor in front of the fake fireplace.
The action unfolds in 24 hours, accompanied by the strains of Barber’s Violin Concerto–shades of Death and the Maiden, with its Schubert string quartet. But the crawling pace of The Deep Blue Sea is mitigated by the immediacy of the cinematography and the freshness of the acting. Rachel Weisz, an Oscar winner for her supporting role in The Constant Gardener, stars as the adulterous heroine. Tom Hiddleston is Freddie Page, her dashing, down-at-heels lover, and Simon Russell Beale plays Lord William, her stodgy, older husband.
The Collyers share a love of books and conversation, but little else. “Beware of passion,” snarls William’s mother (Barbara Jefford) who installs them in the guestroom with twin beds. The neglected wife is won quickly by Freddie’s RAF fighter pilot reminiscences: “Battle of Britain: Nothing like it–excitement and fear!” Lissome as greyhounds, they communicate perfectly in bed, if nowhere else.
They’ve lived together in poverty for 10 months before Hester tries to kill herself. The unemployed Freddie has gone on a golf weekend and forgotten her birthday. He hates to hear her talk, screaming at her in an art museum, “We can’t all be cultured!” His reaction to her suicide note is rejection and rage.
Notified by the worried landlady (Ann Mitchell) of the suicide attempt, William brings a birthday gift–Shakespeare’s sonnets. In one of the film’s finest moments, the couple exchanges a bit of witty gossip, lapsing into easy companionship. Later, on a Tube platform, Hester panics as plaster falls from the ceiling and flashes back to a subway tunnel where the common folk of London have taken shelter during the Blitz. A long pan of the crowd ends at William and Hester, looking out of place in evening clothes, but he softly sings “Mollie Malloy” along with the crowd.
The hurt, shame and yearning in the actors’ faces and voices convey the raw shock of life as it happens to us. Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris) reveals surprising depths in the shell-shocked cad. Beale, the renowned stage actor, is both the brilliant judge who, Hester says, sounds just like her father the vicar, and the son who’s terrified of his mother. But the film belongs to the luminous Weisz, whose mercurial face registers her conflicting emotions and her steadfast, all-accepting love for the hopeless fop in an ascot.
Perhaps most memorable is the depiction of psychological damage sustained by both military and civilian survivors in the ruined city. The characters walk to and from the pub at night through a wet, collapsing London that seems caught in perpetual blackout. In the last shot, children play by the corpse of a tramp in an alleyway; above charred ruins rises the dome of St. Paul’s. It is a shock to remember that this was the London that hosted the 1948 Olympic Games.
In the end, the landlady tells Hester, real love is helping someone get through the worst with dignity. Recalling Sir Paul McCartney’s youthful energy and proudly aged face above the levitating Olympic cauldron, one couldn’t help but think we’ve still got to hand it to the Brits.