A drab London boarding-house in the early ’50s. A woman gazes bleakly out of an upstairs window, her farewell message to her lover echoing through her mind – then closes the curtains, gulps a handful of pills, turns on the gas-tap and lies down to die.
A whirl of flashbacks take us through the backstory – her marriage to a dull elderly judge, her meeting with a dashing younger man and their impulsive affair that led her to this seedy room, while Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto yearns achingly on the soundtrack.
The opening of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s most anguished play plunges us straight into classic Davies territory – battered post-war Britain, sexually stifled, stiff with respectability.
Rattigan’s play was written after his young lover had killed himself, and there resounds through it a howl of despair at the emotional aridity of his narrow world. Hester (a performance of heart-breaking intensity from Rachel Weisz) is married to pillar-of-society Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale).
Her passion for ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) turns her world topsy-turvy; but she comes to realise Freddie’s a shallow man-boy, fixated on his Battle of Britain glory days and terrified of commitment. “Beware of passion, Hester,” her mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford) warns her.
Hester couldn’t follow the advice even if she wanted to; trapped between sexless kindliness and callow lust, she’s destroyed by the lack of a man worthy of her. Echoes of Brief Encounter abound, and Davies deliberately courts them; if Sea is ultimately stagier than Lean’s classic, it often plumbs similar depths.
Davies’ first feature for a decade displays all his virtues: faultless evocation of period, committed performances, loving use of music. If the downbeat mood gets a touch relentless, the material justifies it.