“Love is patient, love is kind, love means slowly losing your mind” Kevin (James Marsden) jokingly says in the fluffy romantic comedy 27 Dresses. It’s a silly, offhand riff on an oft-quoted Bible verse, but it holds some truth in relation to the truly uncontrollable sensation that falling in love is, something that cinema throughout its short history has loved to theorise and attempt to describe. However, most of the depictions of these feelings are joyful, giggly, meet-cute filled experiences, very rarely taking on the tragic, confusing and erratic form shown in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea.
I’m utterly clueless as to how I actually felt about this film, which is a non-linear traversing of a love affair, the present portion of which unfolds within about 24 hours after Hester (Rachel Weisz) attempts suicide. Through the short flashes of memory, it’s revealed that Hester is married to a much older high court judge (Simon Russell Beale) and was living in a relationship devoid of excitement or passion, before leaving him for Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), an ex-RAF pilot troubled by his memories of the war. The two then become trapped in a destructive love affair, which starts off delivering on the excitement that Hester longs for, but is ultimately their crippling fears of loneliness and instability drive them apart. Hester is ultimately caught between two realities, indeed the devil and the deep blue sea – to go back to her successful but unexciting husband; or to stay with someone who doesn’t offer the same devotion as her husband, but is incredibly passionate.
I didn’t enjoy The Deep Blue Sea very much in the moment, it’s the type of film that sometimes feels like a chore and an unrelenting depression, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Shot in a smoky, dreamy haze like a heady, remembered-while-half-asleep snatching of a memory, the film has a sort of heavy, draining, disjointed quality to match Hester’s depression. While it’s mostly successful, a slow reveal that doesn’t rely heavily on exposition, leading us to question Hester’s motivations for the majority of the film, it, more often than not, feels like a prologue to the rest of the film, never reaching a satisfying climax that makes it consistently the shatteringly emotional film it strives to be. Adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play of the same name, its remained faithful to its stage roots, occurring (for the most part) in the tiny apartment Hester lives in now, a stark contrast to her formerly opulent life with Freddie. However, the distinctly theatrical feeling, while making the film feel as intimate as it should be, occasionally makes scenes feel airless and stilted.
But despite this and the occasionally repulsive melodrama (while the score is atmospheric, it’s occasionally too cloying) and unlikeable characters, I think what really pulled me in here was the performances. In the hands of less skilled performers, these frustrating people could be turned into one note, completely grating people, Weisz and Hiddleston instill them with a sort of hopeless tragedy, that, while doesn’t lead me to love them, plucks a sympathetic chord. Hester could have been a privileged narcissist and nothing more, but Weisz makes her struggle against suppressed desire so haunting, creating a memorable, commanding performance (there’s something piercing about the way she says “I’m not blaming you!” that I’ll never forget). Hiddleston is similarly excellent, buzzing with energy and anger, bursting out of the burdening tapestry of the film.
It may not be as successful in examining desire as Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, a film I immediately thought of afterwards, but the fearlessly tragic approach and performances in The Deep Blue Sea makes for a watch with more to consider afterwards than during.