The title of Terence Davies’ soulful film based on Terence Rattigan’s play has nothing to do with the ocean. It refers to the idiom (and Tin Pan Alley standard) in which someone laments being caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
The three main characters—and the England they inhabit—are all caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Hester (Rachel Weisz) is married to a judge, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), but is shacking up with an ex-RAF flyer, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). They are all civilized; they are all wounded and lost.
The film begins with an attempted suicide. This isn’t the downer you might expect, though; after that, there’s nowhere to go but up. What follows? Sex, passion, cruelty, kindness and insight. Most of the action takes place in one day.
Davies makes this world come alive. He lingers on details, but doesn’t fetishize them; his eye plunges us into the film’s dreary, romantic milieu, a world of grays and browns and deep, deep blues that match the characters’ disappointments and passions. (Davies’ direction isn’t the film’s only virtuoso performance; Weisz eschews her quirky, working-class charm to play someone deeply conflicted.)
The key info is right up front: The film begins on an image of ruins, and a title appears to indicate that the setting is “around 1950.” This is postwar England, a land where the old institutions and ways have been smashed but the new dispensation hasn’t been worked out.
Sir William and Hester are clearly ill-matched in age and temperament, but it’s the fraying of the social compact that makes Hester want more than a lover on the side. She wants a new way of living, even if she has no idea what this would be. And while the weakening of class boundaries may have brought Hester and Freddie together, she’s cultured and he isn’t. This conflict flares during an afternoon gallery visit they presumably undertake to lift the dying-relationship blues.
Freddie cracks that a painting is “bric-a-brac,” and an annoyed Hester explains that it’s cubist; her sense of cultural superiority is quickly lost, however, when he responds with his own slangy bit of linguistic modernism. She’s unfamiliar with the term “FUBAR,” but Freddie translates the acronym with an angry pleasure that ensures Hester understands that both the painting and their romance are “fucked up beyond all recognition.”
But they really aren’t: This altercation is immediately followed by a reconciliation as Hester and Freddie slow dance to Jo Stafford’s panicked ballad “You Belong to Me,” which blares out of a pub’s jukebox. (Based strictly on movies about this era, the postwar, pre-Beatles England loved and died almost exclusively to the earthy pleas of throaty American “girl singers” like Stafford and Kay Starr.)
Davies uses period music for more than nostalgia; for him, music provokes memories in a Proustian sense. It’s also the one area of modern (pop) culture that unites these class-crossed lovers in something like a state of grace.
If the film doesn’t exactly allow its lovers a happy ending, it grants them understanding. When Freddie says, “Let’s see what the future brings,” Hester responds, “Our future?”
“Just ‘the’ future.”