Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz star in The Deep Blue Sea

Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea (Mongrel Media)

The postwar crumble of England in director Terence Davies' adaptation of playwright Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea is as precise as its 1950: Detailed down to the wallpaper, ruminative and often brutal in its treatment of aspiration and desire and, above all, infected with a creeping case of the bleak.

This is England of the time, one that Davies has, throughout his lengthy career of very careful film choices, taken pains to make right in depiction and contrast. In The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz is Hester Collyer, who leaves the security of marriage to a well-respected judge (Simon Russell Beale) for the palpable passionate attraction to an air-force pilot named Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) whose lucid and inviting moments of humour and sexual possibility are severely mitigated by alcoholism, the haunting of war, and a lifetime of irresponsibility.

Keeping an eye on things from a distance at their one-room bedsit is landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), who not only has to keep on top of cash-strapped lodgers, but is also caring for the bed-ridden, broken-down husband she loves.

"Its subtext is about love," says soft-spoken Davies, 66, in a teeming hotel lobby during last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, "and that's all it is. It's very powerful, but it's the most powerful of all human emotions. In each of the cases, they want a different sort of love, which the other person cannot reciprocate.

"But where you see completely generous love - which is not in the play - is between Mrs. Elton and her husband. This is what real love is: not glamourous. You have to do these things for people, like wipe their asses. And it's appreciated. And I think that is the moment when something happens - not consciously; subconsciously - she thinks: 'Well if they can do it, there's no excuse for me.'"

The last two years have marked somewhat of a resurgence in the popularity of London playwright Rattigan, who died at age 66 in Bermuda back in 1977, with the passing of his 100th birthday coming last July. Michelle Williams was nominated recently for a Best Actress Oscar as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, which chronicled the ill-fated attempt by director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) to bring the Rattigan adaptation The Prince and the Showgirl to cinemas. (Williams ultimately lost out at Oscar to another American at the heart of a story on British soil: Meryl Streep as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.)

The Deep Blue Sea has been brought to theatres once before, when Vivien Leigh and Kenneth More held down the leads in a 1955 version.

"It was basically photographed on the fly," Davies says of the previous version. "Some minor changes were made. Kenneth More was shocked to play a GI - and it really doesn't work."

To make The Deep Blue Sea work this time, Davies had to make some wholesale changes to Rattigan's original stage vision. For example, in this version, Weisz - who Davies pursued for the role of Hester Collyer after seeing her on TV in Swept Up from the Sea - is a complex meter for everyone: introspective while remaining resolutely self-involved and, because of that, frequently lacking self-awareness.

"That's not in the play," Davies notes. "Because the play's not told from her point of view. Rattigan stands outside, and it's like they're missing Rachel. Once I decided that it should be from her point of view - and it's got to be from her point of view; that seemed, to me, to be obvious - then lots of things which are in the play had to go. We can't have any scenes in which she's not privy or involved in. It was trying to capture the essence of her - the essences of all of them, really - to make them believable. Because he, Terence Rattigan, clearly never lived in a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove after the war. That's clear. Because his writing for Mrs. Elton is very clumsy. She's almost a cliché. This has got to be really thinned out.

"After the war, when my sisters got married, these half-houses - you had one room. There was no lavatory. Or one, if you were lucky. And an open gasway on one of the landings. It was that bad. And that's all the money they had. In the play, she's behind with her rent. And Mrs. Alton says: 'You're two months behind in your rent, but you're my favourite tenant, so it doesn't matter.' And you think: 'No woman in her economic situation would ever do that.'

"And there were no tenant's rights," Davies is quick to add. "She would just say: 'You're behind in your rent. Get out.' All of those things I know weren't the case, I got rid of."

Without even venturing this outside, both the reckless promise of Hester and Freddie and the confines of their life in one room is indicative of what is beyond: an England that has been broken down, sapped of hope for the future in spite of the victories of war, and having to find its way with so many of its reference points lost. This is the beginning of a new class divide, and a new way of trying to make a life in a country that still - at least outwardly - still clings to the belief of being the seat of a world empire.

And there is a sense of personal order - on that not just falls in line with everyone else, but respects each other's place - that guides, at least loosely, everyone in this new England.

"It's gone," Davies says now. "We're in the age of the ego: me and my rights. But no one cares about their responsibilities. When I grew up, it was very strict. When I left school at 15, into an office, it was very strict then. We had to work Saturday mornings, although none of the offices were. I was a mere junior. The clerk above me was 18 and came in one Saturday morning without a tie. They said, you know, 'You don't do that again. This isn't a holiday camp.' It was very, very strict.

"That's gone now. That's simply gone. Any kind of authority in Britain now is openly despised. And we are the only country in the world that despises its own language. A lot of glottlestopping in the southeast. Somebody said that you just can't understand it. You can't understand it. And they don't care. And that really upsets me. Language is important."

Hester Collyer is among those getting their first taste, then, of having to go through this world on her own.

"I don't think it's absolutely fruitless," Davies says. "But I do think it's bleak. She's not geared to the world that she's moved into, and that's cruel. It's very cruel. But I think she'll survive, probably with the help of Collyer. He still loves her. And she may survive that way. What I don't think she'll be able to deal with is the shabbiness and poverty that was in Britain. It was just shabby - and bankrupt. There was that to deal with, as well. I think none of those things enter her mind. I think she just decides: 'I will live, and take the consequences.' And that, in itself, is an act of courage."