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The Deep Blue Sea

April 1, 2012
The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies’ new adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea captures, if nothing else, the era of mid-century literary theater. It plays more as a Socratic dialogue — chasing an idea around the stage between the players — than a realistic narrative. For those ready to shift gears into this style, the experience can be rewarding, but for those who aren’t it will likely be stultifying. This sort of thing is probably where the old trope about high-cultural events being experiences to endure caught hold in pop culture.

The story is simple enough: Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is a vicar’s daughter, married to Sir William (Simon Russell Beale) respected judge in 1950 London. William is from old money — the British equivalent of Main Line WASPs,to judge by his mother (Barbara Jefford) — and while very proper their marriage lacks any sort of romance. But then she met Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot who was an ace in the Battle of Britain.

When their affair is discovered, William throws Hester out but refuses to grant her a divorce. Even so, she moves into an apartment with Freddie who makes up for in passion what he lacks in stability. But this erratic nature of his drives Hester down as much as his passion elates her, even to the point of suicide. And yet she finds herself unable to return to her flat life with William after experiencing the peaks Freddie offered. She’s caught between the devil and, well, you know.

Davies’ direction is extremely theatrical. Characters speak their lines in slow, measured paces with wide gulfs between them for the audience to read. There is a sense of something being explained slowly and carefully. The dialogue doesn’t feel at all natural, which can be a little off-putting at first, but it’s a distinct stylistic choice rather than any flaw in delivery. It’s easier to find fault with the Samuel Barber-scored fever dream that starts things off.

Rattigan’s words are carefully-chosen, and Davies respects them utterly, making sure they all come across. They work to underline all the points — sometimes a tad excessively — but leave much for the audience to connect for itself. Hester’s flashbacks are similarly presented as further illustration without much in the way of explanation.

Within this melodramatic vein, the cast performs admirably. Weisz and Hiddleston both turn their characters up to eleven, drawing them in bright, emotional primary colors. In contrast, Davies shoots post-war London with a beautifully muted palette, running from drab country autumn browns and greens to urban greys, all suggesting breakdowns and impending finality with a certain stark beauty.

But as the curtain falls I have the same problem I always have: I’ve never been able to understand just why Hester loves Freddie, only that she does. As effective as Davies is at visualizing Rattigan’s words, and as convincing as Weisz is as Hester, I still don’t fully understand. Is it a flaw in the movie or in my understanding? This I can’t tell you.

Worth It: yes, if you don’t find this sort of film boring.
Bechdel Test: a close one; I’ll call it a pass on the basis of a couple conversations between Hester and some minor female characters, which are — I think — more about Hester herself than about anyone else.

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