There’s a purity to the English actress Rachel Weisz, as she glides from playing a doctor in the popcorn thriller “The Bourne Legacy” to a love-besotted wife in the intellectual romance “The Deep Blue Sea.” In the latter film, she plays Hester Collyer, a postwar English aristocrat who risks everything for an affair with the charming but vapid pilot Freddie Page (“Thor’s” Tom Hiddleston). Weisz delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that merits a second look. Adapted from the Terence Rattigan play and directed by Terence Davies, “The Deep Blue Sea” is one of the best films of 2012 that you probably haven’t seen: It grossed $1.1 million domestically, while “The Bourne Legacy” hauled in $275 million worldwide.
One difference between the two movies: In the big-budget “Bourne” Weisz is the chief damsel in distress; in “TDBS” she’s the lead, and her character’s story drives the plot. The posh Hester has married an older man for love and social position and then gets blown sideways when she meets a man in uniform who unleashes her libido. There’s a thematic parallel to “Anna Karenina,” another historical fiction about a women who exits a stifling marriage through infidelity and suffers the consequences.
Weisz, who married Daniel Craig last year, was sitting over breakfast in a boho East Village cafe with me as she reflected on Hester’s parallels with Keira Knightley’s Karenina. In both movies, the husband isn’t demonized to justify the wife’s action. In “TDBS,” Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) clearly wants the best for Hester despite her infidelity. “Yes,” agreed Weisz, “he’s a nice guy. He’s a sweetheart. When I read it, I’d imagined a really evil, horrible, nasty husband.”
And Sir William is such a jolly man, even if he’s a middle-aged mama’s boy. “He’s so emphatically kind and warm,” continued Weisz while eating her Mediterranean breakfast of eggs, hummus, and pita. “Please spoon in,” she said to me, sharing her food as I sipped coffee. “It completely threw me, because it just made it so painful to hurt him. I had imagined him evil, so it would be easier to desert him.”
Hester is not reacting against her husband but rushing toward the passion that Hiddleston’s Freddie offers. “Hester gets awakened in her whole body,” Weisz agreed, “in her whole soul and spirit. She falls completely, totally, utterly in love. And it’s a kind of love that she’s not in control of in any way. What interested me was that she really lets herself go all the way. She has absolutely no dignity left. She knows that it’s never going to work. She knows he’s not worthy of her. She knows that he doesn’t really love her.”
This insight resonated with what Knightley recently told me when discussing Karenina. “What I saw in Anna was the story of somebody who’s been starved,” Knightley told me by phone. “She’s 28, with a 10-year-old child, and she’s never experienced a romance. Once she tastes lust and romance, she cannot equate love with anything else. She doesn’t understand that love is a spectrum. Once that initial first burst of passion cools, she can’t recognize that [her lover] Count Vronsky’s love continues or that her husband loved her in his own way.”
Weisz recognized the parallels but also contrasted Hester and Anna: “There are different kinds of love, as Keira said. Hester’s husband loves her. But, unlike Anna, I don’t know that Hester tried that hard not to stray. I think the door just opened, and that was it. She fell.”
Both Weisz, 42, and Knightley, 27, have the privilege of looking at their characters from a time of relative sexual freedom. Keira said of Anna: “She’s someone whose want is insatiable. That’s her tragedy. If, at 28, you’ve never experienced romance or orgasm, how would you know it wouldn’t sustain itself in the way we do now?”
“It’s not how we’re meant to behave,” Weisz said. “It felt like it was something very true about human nature and something really fascinating to explore: What happens when you fall so in love that you will destroy everything?” And, yet, while Hester couldn’t stop chasing Freddie, or put the genie back in the bottle and return to her husband, contemporary women are more sophisticated and have more options. Weisz agreed: “Our girlfriends would say, ‘Come on, pull yourself together. He’s not that into you.'”