Between the devil and the deep blue sea is a phrase that means to choose between two undesirable, difficult, or dangerous situations. If both passion and stability ruled the world, I think we’d all find ourselves somewhere in this space. In Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, it most certainly rules the world for Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who finds herself caught between men who represent two different ends of the spectrum of love.
The Deep Blue Sea is based on a 1952 Terence Rattigan play by the same title, and takes place over the course of one day in a shabby flat in early 1950s London, a little less than a year after Hester has left her husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), for a younger and far more passionate lover, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). We first meet Hester in Freddie’s flat, bedraggled and unkempt as she closes off all ventilation and attempts to commit suicide using a small gas stove in the corner of the flat. Her attempt unsuccessful, she patiently awaits for Freddie to return home from a weekend golf outing, hoping to brush her recent dalliance with death under the rug. Much of the rest of the film centers on that same day, and is also carried out in flashbacks of not necessarily happier, but merely different times.
The Deep Blue Sea is a deeply melancholic and beautiful film. It is not a movie for the impatient or the absurdly happy. It is so very clearly based on a play that it almost reads as such, the characters gazing out the window or into each others eyes as if they were gazing out over a proscenium and into the darkness of a theatre. It takes a certain solitude and solemnity to absorb this film. Booked as a romantic and perhaps erotic film, it has elements of each, but in the end thematically is far more about the sadness that underlies some of the choices we make in life.
The performances of Beale and Hiddleston are outstanding, studied, and committed, but it is Weisz who gives a truly standout performance. Her Hester is at most times unnervingly calm, but this wears away as we see her desperately try to grasp at the remains of her impassioned but unfulfilled relationship with Freddie. She seems somehow convinced that if she can maintain the facade, that everything will fall into place. She is, perhaps, at her calmest and best when she is with Sir William (she calls him Bill) but it is a sad and final sort of calmness, the kind that cannot be easily moved or swayed. This film is wholly and completely about Hester, and Weisz takes on this challenge with a sad yet effortless grace that captivates.
Beale’s Sir William, for his part, allows us to see through the cracks in the veneer of the wealthy man’s existence: he is deeply unhappy, unable to please his wife or his mother, yet is in his heart a good and simple man. His character is played with a delicate gentleness that, while unsettling in its sadness, provides an anchor for much of the film. Hiddleston’s Freddie is largely the opposite: boyish, quick to anger, and deeply offended by Hester’s dramatics, he soothes himself with comforting past times of golf and drinking, unable to be fulfilled by his luscious but unstable lover. As a side note- Hiddleston is an up and coming Hollywood name that should certainly be paid attention to. He seems to play his characters, be they a Marvel Comic villain or a worn RAF pilot with purpose and dignity, and is fantastically convincing in the roles I’ve seen him in thus far.
The only hints of happiness we see in the Deep Blue Sea are through flashbacks. We are reminded that Hester is indeed fond of her husband, although irritated at his inability to start marital relations and bored by his stability. We see the passionate beginnings of Hester and Freddie’s affair, how their physicality often (though not always) mutes out an argument that threatens to spiral out of control, and most importantly how Hester came to be at this place between the devil and the deep blue sea. These flashbacks also allow us to appreciate the artistic choices made by the film makers. Much of the present day appears dark and sooty on camera, almost as if we are peering through the dingy windows of Freddie’s London flat onto the gloom of their lives. Many of the flashbacks, by contrast, are warmly colored with soft lighting as if to reflect Hester’s contentment, and if not this, at least complacency.