Emotionally stranded and physically isolated.
My wife watches a good deal of the review assignments I receive with me, and though we have somewhat different cinematic tastes and preferences, we’re usually able to find at least some middle ground in terms of what we liked and disliked about a movie. Not so with Terence Davis’ The Deep Blue Sea, a film that she loathed and I loved. It’s the sort of thing that is likely to inspire strong feelings one way or the other for most viewers, and it’s my hope that this review will help illuminate which side of the spectrum you’re likely to land on.
The tale centers on a woman named Hester (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy), who is married to the elderly, wealthy Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale, My Week with Marilyn). Sir William is an emotionally reserved man who lives a remarkable passion-free life, which leaves Hester feeling more than a little unsatisfied. She seeks solace in the arms of a Royal Air Force pilot named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse), who delivers a great deal of passion but who is incapable of providing the level of comfort and security Sir William offers. When Sir William finds out about the affair, he angrily separates from Hester, who quickly proceeds to move into an apartment with Freddie. However, her new relationship soon develops liabilities of its own.
One of the elements of The Deep Blue Sea that lingered with me for quite some time after I finished viewing it was just how quickly the film rushes through Hester’s romance with Freddie. We see a series of memories flying by during the film’s opening reel: a moment in which Freddie tells Hester that she’s genuinely the most beautiful woman on earth, some laughs in a bar, an unexpected yet happy encounter at a train station. It’s all capped off by a brief scene of rapturous lovemaking. The camera hangs above the two lovers during the afterglow, as Freddie closes his eyes contentedly and Hester looks on him with undying adoration. She leans over and appreciatively licks him on the back of the shoulder. These moments don’t last long, but they’re quite important, as they represent the only stretch of the film in which Hester seems genuinely happy.
At a certain point, it becomes obvious that the relationship between Freddie and Hester simply isn’t going to work out. Her neediness and his previously-disguised ugliness eventually come to the surface and cause a rift between them, and things begin to turn sour at a remarkable rate. In the midst of all of this, Sir William returns and gently asks Hester to return to him. In his bashful and sweet-natured way, he admits his shortcomings, forgives Hester of hers and expresses his deep desire to care for her as best as he knows how. He is imperfect, but he truly loves her. Hester is receiving a gracious second chance that many people wouldn’t be fortunate enough to receive, but she repeatedly tosses it aside in favor of fruitlessly attempting to reignite her relationship with Freddie. As things (predictably) continue to go poorly, she even begins to grow suicidal.
From a logical perspective, Hester’s actions make no sense. After being dragged into misery by Freddie, you would think she would be eager to return to the simple comforts of her former life. However, during those all-too-fleeting moments of ecstasy I mentioned earlier, Hester experienced what she believed to be life at its very fullest. In the wake of that experience, everything else seems curiously unfulfilling. She experienced this beautiful thing with Freddie, and has convinced herself that with enough effort she might be able to recapture it. She is blind to her own desperation, and blind to the fact that her clingy behavior is a part of what has driven Freddie away from her. In a way it plays like a feminine variation on Steve McQueen’s Shame, featuring a lead character with an unhealthy emotional addiction rather than a purely sexual one. When observed from a distance, it’s possible to regard both films as silly and overheated, but observing addiction is a much different thing from being ensnared by it.
During one of the film’s best and most affecting scenes, Sir William asks Hester whether she’s objectively certain about her feelings for Freddie. Hester smiles and admits to being surprised by the suggestion that Sir William thinks it’s possible for her to be objective under the circumstances. In another great moment, Hester’s landlady softly clucks her tongue at Hester’s behavior and offers a piece of blunt wisdom: “There’s a lot of funny ideas about love. Real love is wiping someone’s ass and helping them preserve their dignity.” It’s a sharp rebuke of the self-induced journey Hester is on, but she is entirely incapable of freeing herself from its grip. Her moments of joy flew by with alarming speed, but her moments of despair — often presented with long, Bergmanesque close-ups and underscored by the aching passion of Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” — feel so overwhelmingly inescapable.
Rachel Weisz doesn’t get the credit she deserves. Her choices are consistently bold and risky (even when they’re bad), and no one could ever legitimately accuse her of indulging in the sort of “give-me-an-award” overacting that so many successful thespians eventually fall into. In The Deep Blue Sea she’s required to do more with her eyes than with her dialogue (a rare requirement for a film based on a play), and she pulls off the feat admirably. In her performance, we’re able see the misunderstood, complex woman trapped inside this seemingly foolish emotional junkie. Tom Hiddleston handles both the cavalier charm and the sour brutishness of his role quite well, while Simon Russell Beale plays his crucial role with affecting understatement. There’s also a brief but memorable turn from Ann Mitchell (EastEnders), who depicts Sir William’s overbearing mother in a revealing scene that wasn’t featured in Terence Ratigan’s original play.
The one area where I would take issue with the film is in its portrait of post-WWII London, which is stylized and romanticized within an inch of its life. Some of it works, but some of it is simply distracting. I adored the scene in which a bar sing-a-long of “You Belong to Me” fades into a more intimate dance accompanied by the same song, but not so much the melodramatic (even by this film’s standards) flashback sequence in which a group of distressed citizens sing “Molly Malone” as bombs drop overhead. This London of old has been recreated very lovingly, but there’s so much affectionate attention to detail that it almost doesn’t feel like a real place. It undercuts the raw emotions the film is dealing with.
Speaking of visuals, I can’t really comment on the self-professed standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, as the studio sent us a screener disc sporting typically sub-par video and audio (not to mention the words “Property of Music Box Films” flashing across the screen and abrasively interrupting some important moments). Additionally, while the artwork for the official release promises a host of bonus features, I was not given access to any of them.
The Deep Blue Sea isn’t for everyone, but it is an ambitious and moving work that understands the inexplicable foolishness of the human heart. However, if it strikes you from the wrong angle, you may simply find it inexplicably foolish. I hope some of you will give it a chance and find it rewarding.