“Beware of passion, Hester, it always leads to something ugly,” warns Hester Collyer’s dour mother-in-law in “The Deep Blue Sea,” Terence Davies’ adaptation of the 1952 Terence Rattigan play. Alas, if only it did. What it does lead to in this beautifully art directed but essentially static melodrama is a lot of knuckle-biting, despondent looks through rain-streaked windows, and politely bristling silences. It is 1947 London, after all, where repression is all the rage, at least among the upper middle class.
This Hester doesn’t wear a scarlet A on her breast, but she might as well. Hester is a symbol for the need that will not be denied. Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and numerous other literary ladies, she’s thrown herself away for love, and it doesn’t end well. Played by the gorgeous Rachel Weisz, Hester is married to a significantly older judge, performed with the proper rectitude by Simon Russell Beale.
In the best performance of the film, Beale imbues his Sir Collyer with all the dignity and limitations of a man in his position. He clearly can’t give his wife the intimacy and passion she longs for, and while he’s deeply shamed by that failure, he is unable to say so. The sight of him sitting in a car struggling to convey his feelings and ultimately acknowledging that he just can’t is the most moving scene in the film.
Those few minutes tell us more about the culture of silence than all of Weisz’s sighing and moaning. The judge’s failure ultimately makes him mean, but it doesn’t really impact Hester. Her problems are of her own making.
The film opens with Hester’s unsuccessful suicide attempt, and through flashbacks and a voice over narration, we learn that she’s been disappointed by her lover, RAF pilot Freddie Page. Freddie has given her the sexual satisfaction that she’s never experienced before, and she’s desperate to keep his attention. But it seems Freddie is just not that into her, to be anachronistic. He likes hanging out at the pub telling war stories, and he’s searching around somewhat aimlessly for a job.
Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nichols in “War Horse” and F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”) plays Freddie as a rather thoughtless young man who is taking advantage of the opportunities presented to him. He’s not a cad, certainly, but he’s understandably overwhelmed by Hester’s neediness.
Davies is a gay man, and his films, which include “The House of Mirth,” are often viewed through that lens. More important, probably, is the fact that Rattigan was a homosexual when it was not possible to write openly about gay love. Whether “The Deep Blue Sea” is an obscured look at a gay love affair doesn’t really matter. The feelings are the same, presumably, and even if Hester was Henry, the obsession with a lover who cannot return passion with the same intensity wouldn’t change. It might make it seem less old-fashioned, though.
Shot through what seems to be a Vaseline-coated lens, the film manages to make post-war London look gorgeous. The scenes in the pubs, in Freddie’s drab flat, in the underground, all seem to be lit by a soft, warm light that makes it look very cozy. There are many interior scenes that emphasize the restrictions of Hester’s life. She often looks like a prisoner is a small cage.
Davies is known to be a fan of 1940s “women’s” pictures, and “The Deep Blue Sea” shares a lot with that genre. If you’re a fan too, you’ll enjoy it. If, on the other hand, this kind of melodrama makes you queasy, move on.