"The Deep Blue Sea," a love-triangle melodrama that transcends conventions of the genre, satisfies as a graceful, resonant medley of warm nostalgia, British miserablism, vibrant humanity and angry social drama.
It is the work of distinctive British writer-director Terence Davies, whose best known films, "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes," are masterful, music-laced remembrance pieces set in postwar Liverpool.
Now adapting Terence Rattigan's 1952 play, Davies infuses some of those elements into Rattigan's drama while retaining the basic story and sentiments. Eliminating what he deemed unnecessary exposition, he created something that might peeve purists but is undeniably cinematic.
Set in war-scarred early-1950s London, the drama begins when Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a 40ish vicar's daughter, swallows pills and turns on the gas in a crummy apartment. Her suicide attempt thwarted by her landlady (Ann Mitchell), Hester reveals, through flashbacks, that she has left her decent older husband, the high-court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), and moved in with young former military pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), with whom she has discovered sexual pleasure.
The relationship has soured. War-damaged, heavily drinking Freddie can't handle Hester's intense emotions. He neglects Hester, who responds desperately.
Davies, who has cited 1940s dramas with strong women, including David Lean's "Brief Encounter," as influences, doesn't achieve the operatic. While Hester, like Lily Bart in Davies' adaptation of "The House of Mirth," comes across as a deserving woman trapped in propriety-obsessed times, her suffering isn't heroic, but sad. Shallow, immature Freddie isn't worth it.
Hester is nonetheless an impressive protagonist as she bucks society to honor her heart. She is also, as conceived by both Terences and played both elegantly and quietly volcanically by Weisz, a moving portrait of how conformist conduct codes can mar even the most formidable of spirits.
The film also scores atmospherically. Echoing Davies' Liverpool dramas and similarly themed documentary "Of Time and the City," it re-creates a pocket of place and time.
As with Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake," the setting feels, not just looks, like a world governed by 1950s mores. The visual imagery, which includes Hester standing out in a red coat amid the prevailing browns, is lush and gorgeous.
And, of course, there is the music. A Barber violin concerto conveys Hester's emotional trajectory. In a magnificent memory rush, a mournful rendition of "Molly Malone" unites wartime bombing survivors in common humanity as they gather in the shelter of an underground station. This is one-of-a-kind cinema.
Supporting-cast highlights include Beale as the caring but conventionally bred Sir William and Barbara Jefford as William's haughty mother. Davies reaps mild comic relief from the latter.
The Deep Blue Sea ★★★
Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Running time 1 hour 38 minutes