English filmmaker Terence Davies has focused a lot of his career thus far on post-war England and The Deep Blue Sea is yet another example of his ability to truly capture a place and time. The British film is based on the 1952 play of the same name by Terence Rattigan. It is seemingly couched in the dryness and repression of the era, presenting a fairly claustrophobic but no less enriching experience.
The movie is really quite suffocating in a lot of ways, which plays both to its benefit and its downfall. The characters may or may not be immediately relatable, but they are all undeniably human. Davies’ screenplay ensures the audience of their layers and complexities without ever formulating one warm moment. Instead, the viewer glides over the presence of one long and suicidal day.
The Deep Blue Sea opens “around 1950” and centres on Hester Coyle (Rachel Weisz). She is the young wife of High Court judge William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a somewhat stuffy and reserved older man who still lives with his demonic mother (Barbara Jefford). Because of this uncomfortable (read: stifling) living situation, Hester is unable to experience what could be the real love of the marital bed.
Hester embarks on a passionate but emotionally perplexing affair with former RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). He is a firecracker and a drinker, dragging Hester around to pubs and singing a lot. One day, Hester decides to commit suicide. She seems to do so because she pities damn well everyone around her, including herself.
The Deep Blue Sea takes place on the single day that Hester has decided to end it all. It informs the audience as to the surrounding details with a stew of brief flashbacks and snippets. There are many moments that seem to push things forward, like how Hester’s suicide attempt fails and how Freddie finds the note she left for him in hopes of making her last exit.
To suggest that the picture is complicated would be an understatement, but such are matters of the dark hearts. The characters don’t know what love is, although Hester seems to harbour a desire to find out. She doesn’t find it in the arms of Freddie, a young man with a temper and with a tendency to humiliate is wife in subtle ways. And she doesn’t find it in the arms of William, a man she lovingly but distantly calls “Bill.”
Some of the movie’s best scenes involve the chilling relationship between Hester and her mother-in-law, played to beautifully icy perfection by Jefford. Every line between the two is barbed in awfulness and they despise each other to no end. William, meanwhile, sits limply by without standing up for his new wife. This drives Hester further into the abyss.
For all the emotional complications and beautiful cinematography, it’s hard to shake the idea that The Deep Blue Sea is indeed a movie. Much of what Weisz, Hiddleston and Beale do feels like acting in such overt ways that one is rarely transported to the place Davies loves so much. While Weisz is good in the role, she tends to go off the rails a bit when the script calls for her to display a more frenetic range.
That said, the subtleties line up nicely. Weisz is damn good when she harbours things like deep resentment or trouble. When she determines that her life really is a choice between the Devil and the title of the motion picture, she is a blur of despair. And when nobody can help her and the landlady (Ann Mitchell) tells her that love involves wiping someone’s arse, the audience can’t help but sink into misery with her. Turn on the gas.