The thing about love is it has a fierce independent streak—it doesn’t need to be reciprocated in order to flourish. While it’s often thought about as two people building something together, love is a creative act, too, borne of ideals and impulses that are entirely personal and imaginative, and beyond the ability to control. That’s why the word “doomed” so often precedes the descriptive “romantic,” because romantics lack the ability to rationalize their feelings and bring them in line with their would-be partners’. It can throw relationships into a fatal imbalance.
Terence Davies’ crushing new film, The Deep Blue Sea, based on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, earns a place alongside Letter From An Unknown Woman and The Heiress, those beautiful romantic tragedies about women whose love curdles and rots when they get nothing in return. The difference is that Hester Collyer, Rattigan’s heroine, cannot fairly blame her lover for failing to live up to her impossible expectations. The painful journey in The Deep Blue Sea isn’t about unrequited passion or betrayal—though there’s plenty of both—but about Hester taking ownership of who she is and struggling, with heartbreaking conviction, to find some perspective on the wreckage that she’s made of her life.
Gorgeous yet brittle, and past the age where the promise of young love is still possible, Rachel Weisz is ideally cast as Hester, who methodically sets about a suicide attempt in the opening scene. Perched in a third-story apartment overlooking the wreckage of post-war London, Hester has reached the point where her lover’s negligence has finally pushed her over the edge. The attempt fails, but it gives the film a fulcrum on which it can teeter-totter back and forth in time, showing how the affair developed and the fallout from Hester’s desperate act. Davies layers these two different strands with consummate elegance, with past and present informing one another at just the right moment and old memories flooding dramatically to the surface.
The two men in this love triangle are a study in contrasts. Her husband William (Simon Russell Beale), a well-heeled judge of advancing age, is kind but old-fashioned and unable to inspire a shred of the passion she craves. But she falls hard for Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing and charismatic Royal Air Force pilot who lacks William’s patience and substance, and proves too troubled and self-involved to love her back in the same way. Though it’s understood from the start that Hester’s affections will never be equally met, Freddie and Hester move in together, and he winds up leaving her isolated and lonely in a rented room that seems to smother any sunlight that breaches its windows. Meanwhile, William’s bitterness over the affair wounds her all the more, as he refuses to see her or grant her the relief of divorce.
Though he’s made a handful of fiction films, including a superb adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth in 2000, Davies is most revered for a series of autobiographical pieces like Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and Of Time And The City. The bitter, sardonic wit of those self-portraits carries over into The Deep Blue Sea, as does their burnished soft-focused color palette, which looks deceptively like the past preserved in amber. Though Davies’ films are suffused with nostalgia—paying meticulous, near-fetishistic attention to period music, costumes, and décor—they’re by no means reverent of the past and are defined as much by despair as by his evident love of setting. Every image may look like a beautiful old photograph, but the stories behind them are alive with intense emotion, however suppressed they might be.
In Rattigan’s play, Davies has found a vehicle perfectly suited to his half-acrid/half-romantic sensibility. The dialogue has some sharp, emotionally violent exchanges, but just as often those passions are submerged in dry sarcasm. When Hester and William spend an excruciating weekend with his hostile mother (Barbara Jefford), Hester’s impetuousness and her mother-in-law’s prudence create a philosophical impasse that their mutual insults fail to bridge. Between the old woman scoffing at Hester for pouring the milk first at teatime (“I’m sure it will be very refreshing”) and Hester’s snotty answer about whether she plays tennis (“I always thought of sport as one of the most pointless human activities”), there’s plenty of ripe pettiness to go around. But funny as it is, there’s some truth in this warning to Hester that cuts to the bone:
“Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.”
“What would you replace it with?”
“A guarded enthusiasm. It’s safer.”
You don’t have to be a mad romantic like Hester to bristle at the idea of going through life with “guarded enthusiasm,” but its opposite is every bit as dangerous as her mother-in-law implies. Though far kinder and tender in a way that offers Hester no satisfaction, William shares too much of his mother’s caution; Freddie is more of a wild card, but his brashness manifests itself in anger, excessive self-regard, and a robust drinking problem. It might be tempting to say that Hester is caught between these two extremes—the devil and the deep blue sea of the title—but her passions are crazily out of proportion and may be impossible even for more compatible men to satisfy. She’s perhaps guilty of expecting more from men—and from life—than she can reasonably hope to receive.
There’s a suffocating air to The Deep Blue Sea that makes it harder to access than other period romances of its kind, but Davies aligns himself wholly with Hester. Left alone in Freddie’s stifling apartment, she becomes a wilted hothouse flower. Yet Davies doesn’t entirely cast Hester as one of those noble sufferers whose love is too grand and beautiful for others to comprehend or appreciate. There’s a deeper tragedy to The Deep Blue Sea that Davies affixes to London itself and the communal spirit of the city during wartime. The single best shot in the film flashes back to a subway station in the middle of a bombing run, where citizens huddle tensely as the tunnel shakes above them, all joining in a nervous chorus of “Molly Malone” while Davies’ gliding camera reveals a city within a city. There’s a warmth to that scene that Hester, by her nature, cannot bring herself to access. Her passions never find purchase in the wider world.