The Deep Blue Sea is a Fragmented but Fitting Drama
by Kristin Battestella
Fractured people are trying to fix themselves and more in this 2011 British adaptation of the 1952 post-war play by Terrence Rattigan. While some of the symbolic, broken framework and mid century pace will deter viewers, the intersecting character studies here provide plenty of modern intrigue and social examinations to discuss.
Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) has left her older husband Sir William (Simon Russell Beale) and has been living with former Royal Air Force pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). The aristocratic Hester, however, has found living with the devil may care Freddie is not as she expected. While her husband vows there will be no divorce and wants to keep this scandal quiet, Hester contemplates suicide thanks to her emotional upheaval and the turbulent consequences of the post-war times...
This is London, 1950, and director Terence Davies (The House of Mirth) opens the 98 minute melodrama with a bleak suicidal monologue. The old fashioned dialogue will be difficult for some, and silent establishing montages with snippets of sunny memories or outdoor happiness may be confusing as well. The first half hour does eventually catch up in real time before more redundant stalling recaps what we already saw, and the entire drive by start seems unnecessary, a dry delay in the telling of the tale on top of stuffiness and suicide as a crime that today's audiences will already find tough and unfamiliar. The whirlwind recollections highlight the blissful, but they are intercut with a slow, lingering, dreary reality, and the result is uneven rather than a balanced pre-war etiquette versus breaking free conflict. I understand the intentionally broken narrative structure symbolizing the fractured minds and hearts of its players, but for modern speedy viewers, The Deep Blue Sea will be a little too arty in the summary of its affair. Ironically, The Deep Blue Sea is rushed in its disjointed timeline, too – this liaison has been happening for months yet the skipping around viewpoint creates willy nilly emotions. It's tough to appreciate the anger and regret from moment to moment, and we might have understood the passion and pain more had we seen the bad marriage, felt the swept up romance, and then saw the cracks of the arrangement in linear fashion. Fortunately, once you get through the fifties styled constructs, the script is delightful. Actual, uninterrupted conversations blossom into character development, and hearing the players express themselves truly tells the audience what a tumultuous time this has been. The Deep Blue Sea is a day in the life of an affair, but getting to know the characters replaces the fallout because we can't see the behind closed doors action. Affairs, alcohol, clinging to the old aristocracy – how does one rebuild themselves and a nation when talking about shell shock and sex is stiff upper lip taboo? The rigid, unyielding pre-war society that sustained these people during The Blitz is now festering an inability to cope with the war's unknown aftermath.
Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) beautifully captures this post-war era and looks the classic and reserved part needed for The Deep Blue Sea. Women weren't supposed to be so shocking back then – though we know they totally were – and Weisz delivers sophistication alongside being scandalous and seemingly carefree in a slip or robe. We may not see much saucy beyond lightweight lingerie and sideview nudity, but Hester is enticed by Freddie's reckless abandon and clings to him, desperate to consume him and get her kit off. When her minister father tells her to go back to her husband, it isn't what Hester wants to hear – she is done with dull safety and intends to speak her mind. No, she shouldn't be angry or ashamed for having gotten what she wanted – a man to make her feel better – but she can't have it both ways and therein lies the titular dilemma. Hester is too accustomed to aristocratic style, and this dalliance can't be sustained once physical or emotional needs turn the passionate into an arrangement that is just as stuffy, non-talkative, stilted, and awkward as her marriage was. Looking through our modern lense, this back and forth, uneven behavior can make Hester seem bitchy and high horse. It's tough see what either man likes about her when she is too busy blaming Freddie for her problems. Does she love him or just need him to love her? There is a difference, and Hester is too confused within herself to accept Freddie for who he is.
She expects him to remain simple and fill her needs, be a big man and fix her mess, or conveniently come up to her high society perfection. Hester never considers that these things won't happen, much less the notion of giving a little his way. Her extraneous pressure makes their good loving damn depressing. Did she think this relationship would be no less turbulent when turbulence and passion go hand in hand? By comparison, was her marriage really so bad then without such love and lust expectations from Sir William? Hester is put to the test as an honor and hold, sickness and in health missus, but she only compliments Freddie, asks if he wants breakfast, and shines his shoes when their torrid is at its end. She has the conversation about where they aren't going when it is too late – just like her husband did with her. Hester is both strong and progressive in a time when women weren't supposed to be so gung ho, yet she never learned how to be herself and thought another man would make it better. Can she make it on her own? This is a superb performance from Weisz, and it's wonderful to see an unhappy woman's perspective and mid life awakening – reflections so often dismissed in favor of some blossoming young love phooey. As I asked after seeing Weisz in Agora, why aren't there more roles like this? Where are the movies that make room for female performance and character movement rather than superficial babe spectacles?
Hello. Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, Crimson Peak) has the first line in The Deep Blue Sea, and it is a keeper! He looks great in a period suit with a fedora and slick fifties short hair, too, when most of today's actors simply can't carry off this past debonair much less relate the mix of excitement over war glory and its lingering pain. Freddie hides his shell shock with drinking and a lot of fun – mocking the toughness, joking with sound effects, and telling tall tales with jolly good chap RP punctuations. We understand why Hester would be swept up in this adventure and take such a wonderful risk, but what are Freddie's needs in this relationship? He goes golfing and expects their playing house to go smoothly – forgetting that running away with a married woman won't be so dandy. Freddie needs Hester to take care of him – he notices when she doesn't look at him when he enters the room but seems oblivious to how upset she is and wonders what he's done wrong. Freddie ignores her request not to read her suicide letter to him, for it is addressed to him and therefore his to do with as he pleases. He wears his emotions on his sleeve but that doesn't disguise the fact that he is also stilted within himself and childlike stunted by the war more than he cares to admit. He's no doubt passionate, but Hester expects him to shut off his pain. She wants him to man up, drink, and not reveal the barbarism of war, but Freddie is correct when he says he is not a villain for wanting to express himself in more than just the accepted alcoholism of the time or when it is convenient for her.
While the audience probably expects weighted roles from Weisz and Beale, Hiddleston more than holds his own with the elder dramatists thanks to an honest and tearful but no less simmering and manly performance. With less screen time and little room to maneuver in the period constructs, his kettle about to boil over character adds a much needed counter point zing to The Deep Blue Sea. Freddie is just as damaged – and perhaps more traumatized – than Hester is yet he makes no demands on her when she berates, bullies, and calls him childish. It isn't okay for her to insult him as uncultured and groan when she doesn't want to hear about his bravery. He's right in calling her extreme for contemplating suicide over his forgetting her birthday. After Freddie has already seen a war far worse, he is still trying to live it up and smile scars and all. Why can't he share that turmoil with her? Hester wants to get her O on all well and good, but remember, men of this time weren't supposed to talk about shell shock or share their fears and war trauma just as women weren't supposed to be so sexually taboo. Freddie is capable of the softness she wants, but he needs her nurture in return. Whether he's uncouth or not shouldn't matter if you love him, but Hester ignores his tender need to sing, dance, and ground himself with their romance. She needs one fix, he needs another, and neither knows how to give an inch to the other. This affair could save Freddie, but whether he is drunk and still a good pilot or not, he returns to daredevil flying because he realizes their lust may be just as destructive. It pains them both, but he loves Hester enough to let her go into an unknown but better fate than their would be lethal passion.
Well, it's twin beds for Hester and Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff to Hiddleston's Hal in The Hollow Crown) as her older, mummy's boy husband Sir William. Immediately the audience wonders why they are even married, but this stuffy, tea time, and tennis watching very British and totally mid century way was the utmost of society before the war. William wants everything to go back to the way it was, where topics of conversation never go beyond the lovely garden or milk in first – everything remains sanctimonious and insufferable, so naturally, no one really says much of anything. Had he noticed her juicy phone calls and unhappiness sooner and loosened up some, maybe this saucy might not have happened. We don't spend enough time in the bad marriage to see how things turned ill, but we can't accept his stagnant views any more than William could reconsider his rigidness. No divorce, no admittance to scandal, just the expected, stalwart notion that this carefree will pass. The disjointed timeline hampers Beale's characterization somewhat – ten minutes after he vows no divorce, ten months have passed and he's mellowed considerably. However, while William knows this type of fling can't last, he too is going about keeping his wife the wrong way, the only way he knows how. We can't expect him to change overnight even if he himself knows there must be a new path. William also isn't the villain by any means, but his very station makes him unable to simply talk to Hester and admit there is a wrong much less resolve it. This is a lovely, classy, reserved performance from Beale in what is not an easy role to play. Likewise, landlady Ann Mitchell (EastEnders) neither condones nor condemns Hester and Freddie's supposed living in sin, balancing a brief but fine line in looking the other way and letting what's private be private. As part of an elderly couple that has grown strong and overcome ills with dignity, she understands how past pain and loss will make each person love more, not less. That is a true match, not passion that fills the vacuum created by war's chaos. Through its small ensemble, The Deep Blue Sea parallels how society was before the war, dares to accept things are different, and asks, 'Now what?'
Fittingly, the palette for The Deep Blue See is subdued and dark. Though not colorless thanks to traditionally scandalous red lips and nails or patterns of the period, there is a post-war sense of dreary, an ongoing recovery from a time when flamboyance and excess were rare and rationed. Clutter, books, pearls, and nostalgic styles, however, create warmth and patina along with old lamps, sunlight, and fireplaces. Smoking mannerisms, hazy air, long drags, and deep exhales also indicate fractured nerves while looking out windows and filming through glass makes for a trapped perspective. The weeping violin score matches the melancholy, but the music disappears or reappears in old fashioned, intrusive swelling like a tragic opera over what cannot be said. The group pub singing of some great classic tunes has much more impact – remember, there were few records to go around and they had to sing what they wanted to hear. Walking to the phone booth to make a call, needing the exact change, and more such sentimental flavor, however, feels hampered by budget restrictions or the original play foundations. Thankfully, The Blitz sequence is perfection, a parallel that does everything it has to do using very little, and these minimal sets and locations do keep The Deep Blue Sea intimate, even quaint. Maybe the torrid doesn't go far enough for today's audience considering the sexual impetus of the tale, but there is something to be said for this fifties styled chaste compared to the new millennium tawdry. The blu-ray edition's commentary, cast interviews, and director master class shed more light on the history for this melodrama– as do the subtitles for anyone who may not fully understand the colloquialisms of the era.
Yes, The Deep Blue Sea would have had a larger audience had its structure not paralleled the constraints of the time and simply told its naughty straight in real time with no back and forth disruptions. The deliberately compromising design will be too arty and overly noticeable for some, stifling spoon fed viewers out of the fine performances with this uneasy narrative on top of at times unlikable character behaviors. Despite condensing its heavy into a short time, this is uncomfortable to watch and not for casual viewing indulgences – mislabeling The Deep Blue Sea as a romance probably hurt viewer expectations as well. The reflection of the era and its mirrored upheavals, however, make The Deep Blue Sea an interesting starting point for viewers not in the post-war know. Classic film audiences will not be bothered by the mid century framing design and subdued tone of The Deep Blue Sea while upper education sociology and psychological classrooms can discuss the lingering historical effects anew. Were the post-war passions and turbulent realizations worth the pain and love lost? Just because the subject matter is strained by design doesn't make the dilemma any less difficult or uninteresting. Thinking film lovers, fans of the cast, and those interested in complex character studies should give The Deep Blue Sea a thorough examination.