A formulaic love story
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Mar. 30, 2012
If the romantic drama "The Deep Blue Sea" had a relationship status, it would be "It's complicated."
Based on Terence Rattigan's 1952 play about a love triangle involving the suicidal wife of a stuffy British judge and the dashing pilot she moves in with, the story is maddeningly oblique and incomplete, despite paying what at times feels like excruciating attention to the minutiae of a dying love affair's final hours.
Adapted for the screen by writer-director Terence Davies ("The House of Mirth"), "Sea" is the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who as the film opens is preparing to kill herself with a combination of pills and gas. The fact that it doesn't work, thanks to an attentive landlady (Ann Mitchell), affords an opportunity for Hester - and the film - to examine what exactly led our heroine to this dark place. Little light is shed on the matter, other than the implication that her attempt had something to do with a forgotten birthday.
Alternating between flashbacks and present-day scenes - mostly conversations between Hester and her estranged husband (Simon Russell Beale) and Hester and her lover (Tom Hiddleston) - the talky film feels like an awkward rehashing of what went wrong, with a protagonist who isn't particularly self-aware. What quickly becomes obvious - to everyone but Hester - is that her marriage was a case of love without passion and that her affair was a case of passion without genuine love.
"She married the first person who asked her," caddish lover Freddie sniffs to a friend, "and fell in love with the first person who gave her the eye." It's an accurate, if unfeeling, romantic postmortem.
Although Davies tries to mine that for tragedy, the scenario ends up sounding like a chapter from a self-help book. It's "Smart Women, Foolish Choices," except that Weisz isn't sympathetic - or smart - enough to make us care much about her choices or her character.
Hiddleston, for his part, makes for an especially strident and unattractive "other man." His character shouts a lot more than is strictly necessary and seems ready to bail at the first sign of relationship engine trouble. It's hard to believe he was ever the ace World War II flyboy the film portrays him as.
Sir William Collyer, Hester's husband, occupies the other end of the spectrum. Mousy to the point of asexuality, and at least a decade older than his wife, he's a crushing bore, with little to say. In his scenes with Hester, whom he visits after her suicide attempt in an effort to get her back, you can literally hear the clock ticking.
Director Davies is known for his sensitivity to nuance and suppressed emotion. In films such as his 2000 Edith Wharton adaptation, "The House of Mirth," more is revealed through what is hidden than through what is shown. Here, however, the source material itself seems lacking. As brought to life by Davies, Rattigan's play feels forced and formulaic, with a dilemma - the devil on one side, and the titular deep blue sea on the other - that's meant to be agonizing but that seems more like six of one and a half-dozen of the other.
Contains obscenity and sensuality.