The Deep Blue Sea an Underappreciated Gem

THE DEEP BLUE SEA (2011/US release 2012)
Directed by Terence Davis
Film4, 98 minutes, R (brief nudity)
* * * *

Lloyd Sellus, who lives in London, tells me that the prosperous city we see today was nothing like that of his youth. London was repeatedly shelled during World War II and, well into the 1960s, the city was marred by bombed-out neighborhoods and dire slums. The Deep Blue Sea is set in that London. It’s 1950, a time in which scorched ruins stand cheek by jowl with intact buildings and city services are so rudimentary that a bit of heat means bundling up several feet from the “electric fire” into which one feds coins for precious moments of (barely) radiating warmth. If that sounds uncomfortable, the heating was light years ahead of feminism. Women had few options and most British women stoically accepted that. But what if you can’t?

How does a young woman with ambition and strong views, but little money, negotiate such a world? There’s another common British trope–one found in dozens of traditional songs–that of a young lass marrying an older man. That’s the set-up for The Deep Blue Sea, a film based on a 1952 Terence Rattigan play. Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is the young woman in question and she has married very well. She’s actually Lady Collyer, as her husband, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), is a high court judge. He’s also decades older than she and, as one old folk song puts it, he has no “courage in him” (a pun on a British beer name and a metaphor for lack of virility). William may be a judge, but he’s a milquetoast dominated by an imperious, snooty mother whom Hester finds as pretentious as a queen and as dull as ditchwater. The film unfolds in various flashback sequences, but you could predict what happens when Hester meets young blade Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). She spends a lot of time wearing (and shedding) a red dress in the film and her name tips us off. She’s essentially Hawthorne’s Hester Pyrne (The Scarlett Letter) several centuries later and several thousand miles removed.

The movie is a love triad/tragedy and, like Hawthorne’s Hester, Lady Collyer is full of desire but devoid of options other than those that male-dominated society deigns to grant. The Deep Blue Sea is also decidedly a play set to film and will not be everybody’s cup of tea. (Indeed, Netflix audiences rank it low.) Much of it is painterly in tone, the palette being more somber Rembrandt than sunny Monet. It’s also akin to a silent film in places, including the first 7 ½ minutes in which there is no dialogue. For all of that, Weisz won the New York Film Critics’ 2012 Best Actress award and I’d call it well chosen. One should not confuse lack of dialogue with silence, and Weisz is stunning in the manner in which she conveys Hester’s desperation without histrionic speeches. We see her pain etched upon her face and in the languid ways in which she moves. Beale is every bit her equal. He doesn’t need to tell us about the unrequited love burning in his bosom–we can practically see the flames shooting from it. Hiddleston’s Freddie is also done well. All, even the smitten Hester, can see that he is a man-child whose exterior as a former RAF fighter pilot is shopworn veneer that scarcely covers the shallowness beyond the shell. 

The film’s title is drawn from the expression “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” a metaphor for being trapped by two unappealing options. If you were Hester, how would you choose? And what would you do if, suddenly, you couldn’t even opt for one over the other? This is a bleak film, but if you like ones filled with interior angst and have the patience for it, it’s a very good one. Few of us Yanks saw it. More’s the pity.

Rob Weir

No comments: