There is a dialogue exchange in The Deep Blue Sea between Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) and her mother-in-law (Barbara Jefford) that encapsulates what playwright Terence Rattigan, in his original 1952 play, and Terence Davies, in his adaptation of it, are all about. Also, it sets us up for the incredibly restrained yet suffocating study of love versus passion. It goes like this:
Collyer’s Mother: Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.
Hester Collyer: What would you replace it with?
Collyer’s Mother: A guarded enthusiasm. It’s safer.
Hester Collyer: But also duller.
The film takes place in post World War II England, a time when life expectancy was relatively shorter than today and also a time when emotions were kept hidden deep within. “Keep calm and carry on” was the motto of the English during the war, and it seemed to stick even after it was over. As a woman living in those times, Hester, being in her late 30s or early 40s, is expected to be a doting wife. And so she is, to a much older man, William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a respected High Court Judge. He loves her very much, and she knows this, but due to his strict upbringing and social position he’s not a very romantic, passionate, or physical guy. Hester was always told this was not important, but to her it is, so being in a merely “enthusiastic” relationship is not enough for her.
But then along comes Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). He’s everything William is not. He’s poor and a war veteran, but he’s also romantic and gives her all the physical pleasure she wants. And so, she gives all of herself to him. She leaves the loving but safe William, and goes into a risky adventure with the dashing Freddie. But even then things are not perfect, for although he is very passionate he is also very self-centered and doesn’t dote on her as well as her husband (he refused to give her the divorce). All of this, being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, leads Hester to the attempted suicided which sets us off in this journey into what drove her to this desperate act.
Told through soft, grainy, and gloomy cinematography, which is meant to reproduce the look and feel of England during that time, The Deep Blue Sea, as adapted by Davies is a critique on the so-called “stiff upper-lip” of the British society, and on the effect the war had not only on its citizens, but also on the personalities of its fighters. He does so through Hester, who has the making of a strong-willed woman. But because of the damage caused by her upbringing, her husband’s lack of visible emotion, and her lover’s alcohol problems and inflated ego she’s trapped in a world she never wanted to be in. With this and the aforementioned gloomy cinematography and long, static shots of faces , Davies creates a film with a suffocating atmosphere that will no doubt keep many away (and in fact has), but for me, it was ever so inviting. He puts us right in this strange but fascinating time, and in the life of such a fascinating woman that despite the fact that we live in a time when such things are not encountered as frequently I could not help but feel for her, despite the film’s cold façade.
But despite the greatness of the atmosphere, the film would not have resonated with me as much had it not had the film’s two perfect performances. The best one belongs to Rachel Weisz as Hester. Weisz, who has always been one of my favorite actresses, has been accused to being cold in every role, even when not needed. While I don’t think this is always true, particularly in her work in Agora and The Whistleblower, it was absolutely necessary to bring that aspect to this film. But at the same time, you can see the raw emotions burning inside of her in her eyes and some fleeting facial expressions. She was born to play this role, and it’s actually the best performance she’s ever given. In a just world, this film would have been picked-up for distribution by a larger studio, but it wasn’t, so I hope that Music Box Films do right by her and give her the awards campaign her work deserves.
The other perfect performance, which is also deserving of awards attention is that of Simon Russell Beale’s as William. He doesn’t have much screen time, but the role is so damn good, and he takes advantage of that. To understand how great he is one has to watch the film, but there’s one scene in particular when I knew I was watching a great performance. It is the one where he finds out about Hester’s affair, which takes place in his mother’s house. His reaction is expectedly cold, especially because of the setting, but in his eyes and in little aspects of his voice you can see and hear the effect the betrayal had on him. Yet, he must remain strong and British, and so because of his nature he gives Hester even more reason to carry on with her affair.
As far as Tom Hiddleston is concerned, he is fine, but the role its self is so over-the-top that his performance at times feels silly, but still appropriate. Also, there are some scenes of angry shouting, and very few actors are able to actually pull those off. Hiddleston is not one of them. But again, he is appropriate.
While I’m hesitant to use the M word for The Deep Blue Sea (I might change my mind later on in the year), I still can’t deny calling this a masterful achievement. Because of its atmosphere and two amazing performances, it is one of the best movie experience I had this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if by the time I finalize my top 10 of 2012, it will be there.