March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Rachel Weisz navigates 'The Deep Blue Sea' of doomed love

Tuesday, June 19 — "Beware of passion, Hester — it always leads to something ugly."
The warning comes from Lady Hester Collyer's mother-in-law, a woman who nearly faints when Hester doesn’t pour the tea in the proper manner (“Oooh, you’ve put the milk in first!”). So it’s perhaps understandable that Hester (Rachel Weisz) would chose to ignore the cautionary comments of the snippy harpy (exceptionally well drawn by Barbara Jefford).

However, when Hester runs away from her frosty, socially advantageous marriage in pursuit of love, she finds herself in over her head, adrift in uncharted and turbulent waters.

Although the title may not ring many bells these days, “The Deep Blue Sea” is adapted from a Terence Rattigan drama that was a dream of a vehicle for many actresses in the mid-1950s. Dame Peggy Ashcroft starred in the West End production, Margaret Sullavan performed it on Broadway and Vivien Leigh portrayed the impulsive Hester in the 1955 film. Weisz, a performer who never has difficulty suggesting the crackling tensions that can hide inside a meticulously groomed lady, seizes the part and tears into it with admirable intensity and concentration. It’s as if she cannot wait to unlock whatever it is that’s lurking in Hester’s heart.

Hester’s husband, William (Simon Russell Beale), is a dutiful but dull High Court judge who seems to have neglected Hester while catering to his stern mother. Instead of quietly accepting the back seat, Hester has broken away, flinging herself into a steamy, evidently hopeless affair with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston — yes, Loki of “The Avengers”), a Royal Air Force pilot. Hester has found that forbidden fruit she was advised against tasting, but outside of bed she and Freddie have to face the cold realities of day-to-day life. William has refused to divorce Hester; Freddie hardly seems like the marrying kind anyhow. So, when we first meet Hester in her cramped London flat, she’s swallowing pills, putting a few coins in the gas heater and settling in for what she hopes will be the Big Sleep.

Set in the difficult years after World War II and before all the rationing and reconstruction came to a halt, “Sea” is a study of survivors who have made it through Hell and find they occasionally miss the heat. Freddie reminisces about the “combination of excitement and fear” he felt during the Battle of Britain, insisting “there’s nothing like it.”

Hester recognizes this disease. “His life stopped in 1940,” she says of Freddie. “He loved 1940. He’s never been truly happy since the war.” For her own part, she can’t even begin to think about going back to her polite and unromantic marriage now that she’s seen a different side of life.

Director and screenwriter Terence Davies amplifies these all-or-nothing emotions by shooting much of this moody, relentlessly bittersweet movie in soft, picture-postcard-style colors that make it seem as if Hester and Freddie are actually living in a daydream.

The truth, of course, is that Hester, who allowed herself to get carried away by her erotic adventures, is destined to be dashed against the rocks, a victim of her own naivete and the stringent behavioral code of the era in which she lives.

“This is a tragedy,” William muses. “Tragedy’s too big a word,” Hester scoffs. “Sad, perhaps, but not Sophocles.”

‘The Deep Blue Sea’
Presented by East Lansing Film Society
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, Wednesday, June 20 and Thursday, June 21
Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
$8; $6 seniors; $3 students