Dir. Terence Davies
(2012, R, 98 minutes)

There are different kinds of love, but none of them seem to suit Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) – at least, none she’s found. In The Deep Blue Sea, she is loved by two men: her husband William (Simon Russell Beale), and her lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), but William’s love is too reserved and Freddie’s is too casual. She is a woman of strong passion unable to find her match, and she is lonely.

Written and directed by Terence Davies, adapted from a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan set just after the Second World War, the film opens with a fragmented sequence that mixes past with present in order to depict Hester’s state of mind during a suicide attempt. We learn that at one point she was married to William and then began a passionate affair. How her relationships soured isn’t immediately clear, and even when we discover the catalyst for her suicide attempt, it only scratches the surface of her loneliness.

The film has a whispery tone and a patient camera. There’s a smoky aura in the cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister and an excited romanticism in the strings of the classical score, suggesting the intensity of its heroine confined within a prim setting. At first the film’s quietness is difficult to engage with, but over time it develops a beautiful rhythm and allows for remarkable scenes. My favorite follows a moment of desperation that leads Hester into a subway tunnel, where she remembers hiding with her neighbors during a London air raid. One man leads the group in singing the 19th century Irish song “Molly Malone,” and the rhythm of the music combines with the slow sweep of the camera to generate a haunting effect. It expresses love, comfort, and regret.

There are great dialogue scenes between Weisz and Beale, who play the estranged couple with feelings of mutual loss and understanding. When they reunite following her suicide attempt, the actors bring tenderness to the exchange that deepens our understanding of their bond. There’s also a telling flashback which shows William’s mother, a woman whose icy traditionalism and disregard of feelings represents a world Hester is in rebellion against. William was brought up in that world; his upper lip is too stiff.

Weisz’s challenge is to give us an understanding of Hester’s desires and decisions, which often defy reason. Her performance suggests that Hester’s passion is not a choice made but almost an affliction suffered. She does not fully comprehend it but has no choice but to heed it, and the disconnect it creates through both her romances leaves her with a constant ache that can be felt under the surface of all of her scenes. Weisz has long been one of my favorite actresses, and this is one of the strongest performances I’ve seen from her.

Her Hester is aptly – and methinks not accidentally – named, following of course the famous Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, another adulteress isolated from the world by social strictures. She wore her letter publicly. Hester Collyer carries hers on the inside.