Watching “The Deep Blue Sea”
“The Deep Blue Sea” is a deeply felt and richly textured examination of a love triangle, centering on a strong-willed woman named Hester (Rachel Weisz) who leaves her older husband, Sir William, for a younger lover, named Freddie. Neither of these men are quite worthy of Hester, a smart, vibrant and passionate woman who, as the film opens, is attempting to gas herself to death because Freddie has neglected her on her birthday. How did things get so bad? And is there any hope?
Based on a play by Terence Rattigan, “The Deep Blue Sea” is a bit of a chamber piece, focused primarily on Hester and the two men who orbit around her. But it also paints a vivid and detailed portrait of post-World War II England — of sing-a-longs in pubs, and chilly rooming houses and bombed-out streetscapes that have yet to be rebuilt. The love triangle that propels the plot could only happen against this somewhat shell-shocked backdrop — a veteran, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) has struggled to adapt to civilian life, and taken to drinking too much, while Hester remains haunted by memories of life during the Blitz. As she contemplates suicide in a subway station, she remembers joining her fellow citizens there during a bombing raid, her husband’s arms around her, as a soldier sings “Molly Malone.”
Hester is the most interesting character in “The Deep Blue Sea,” and I understood the film better after reading an interview with director Terence Davies, where he explained that “The Deep Blue Sea” is a “women’s picture” — the sort of intense study of female emotions and sexuality that Joan Crawford or Bette Davis might have starred in years ago. Hester feels affection for her husband, an erudite judge (Russell Beale), but not passion, and is obsessed with the handsome and exciting but emotionally stunted Freddie.
The film is interesting, because it refuses to turn anyone into a villain: Sir William initially seems cold and unlovable, while later scenes show that he cares about his wife, and would love to have her back. Freddie initially seems warm and fun, while later scenes suggest he is incapable of loving Hester in the way she desires.
The two men respond to Hester’s suicide attempt in dramatically different ways: Sir William with concern and an offer of companionship, Freddie by storming down to the pub to drink. I’ll admit that Freddie’s reaction made it a little more difficult for me to see the good in him: I don’t care how hurtful suicide is, you don’t abandon someone who just tried to kill herself.
Hester tried my patience, too: Why does she love Freddie so much? Of course, one of the film’s key points is that love is often unwise.
Davies is an auteur whose work I’m mostly unfamiliar with, largely because his much-lauded films “The Long Day Closes” and “Distant Voices, Still Lives” are unavailable on DVD. I have seen his autobiographical essay film “Of Time and the City,” but I didn’t particularly care for it, and in some ways I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about “The Deep Blue Sea.” The film is always beautiful to behold — Davies is a master at lighting, music and overall mood — but at times I wondered whether the film’s dreamlike qualities prevented it from cutting as close to the bone as it should have.
“The Deep Blue Sea” is a slow-burn — a study in repressed emotions and poor judgment, and its central theme might best be summed up by a line of dialogue from Hester’s evil mother-in-law: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” I’m not sure Davies believes this, but he’s adept at depicting the unstable emotional entanglements that can result from passion, particularly when the object of one’s passion is unworthy.
For much of its running time, “The Deep Blue Sea” has the feel and arc of a tragedy, which is why the story’s ending is such a surprise. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! After Freddie leaves, Hester switches on the gas, and I was convinced she would make another attempt to kill herself. But she doesn’t. She goes to the window and looks outside, and the camera moves away, showing her boarding house, and the people walking and driving up the street, and then focusing on a bombed-out building. To my surprise, Hester has opted to embrace the outside world, rather than turn away from it, and this deliberate and conscious rebirth can be seen as a metaphor for post-war England, and the country’s effort to move on from the war.
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