It takes a lot of nerve to make something as deliberately, unbearably stuffy as The Deep Blue Sea, the latest adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play, in which director Terence Davies puts a lot of stock in art as imitation. Portraying the affair between judge’s wife Hester Collyer and fiery ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page, and her defunct marriage to homely judge Sir William Collyer, Davies stages events with what Sir William’s domineering mother would generously call “guarded enthusiasm,” to better empathize with Hester’s agony. Davies wants to enter a certain mindset to do so, and he only needs to get as close as saying that the story takes place “sometime in the 1950s” to explain that he’s more concerned with inhabiting an era of thought (a heavily repressed one at that, still reeling from the delirium of war) rather than an exact time and space. With that firmly in mind, the blinders can be calibrated to better understand the institutional obstacles and judgments that face Hester, a suicidal adulterer a decade short of the Swinging Sixties. Thanks to Davies’ direction, the audience is right beside her, suffering through a stiff, stilted, stifling, and stodgy movie in which every retort is calculated beforehand and strained conversations ignite incoherent arguments that are completely incongruous to the carefully placed backdrops wherein they take place. It makes for a very difficult movie to praise, plodding awkwardly through dialogue scenes and interludes alike, threatening to disengage our interest, all in the name of replicating Hester’s state of repression. At its best it creates a highly refined atmosphere of cringe comedy, at its worst seems less interesting than the length of one’s fingernails at the given moment.
Apart from marital woes and personal dignity, it’s a misunderstanding of suicide – specifically Hester’s attempt at it – that drives the plot, making for the most topical element in a story filled with everyday soapiness. Its presence amidst the banality of life seems to be exactly the point, since to Hester (and to Davies, based on how he shoots the scene) her attempt is practically a non-event, just another moment of soapiness indistinguishable from any other aspect of her general ennui. Happening almost immediately, it’s shot in a hazy, vacuous fugue, setting a tone of turgidity that suggests there’s no hope for change, but no real pressure to change anything anyway. It hints rather at a resounding emptiness against which there is no fight. Whereas the perennially confounded Sir William searches for an explanation and Freddie is so repelled he casts her out of his life, Hester would rather forget all about it. Not because it’s too painful, but because it’s too difficult even for her to understand. From Rattigan on down the line, no one pretends to have an answer for Hester’s attempted suicide. Davies captures Hester’s sense of isolation, but it’s the best he can do to make as honest a depiction as possible of the mental drain that suicide has on both those who commit it and those who witness it, while leaving open the suggestion that those who commit it have as little say in the matter as anyone else.
Due to Davies’ confined direction the power rests solely in the hands of the performers, and although the characters lack enough shading to truly be inhabited, Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale do a bang up job of it. Whatever headway Hiddleston has gained as the dark horse heartthrob king of contemporary British actors (racing head to head with Benedict Cumberbatch) will surely be erased by his performance here as a capricious, boastful war veteran, all kindly flattery and youthful energy one instant, public meltdown and sour contempt the next. If only the characters were more fully fleshed to begin with, rather than existing merely as placeholders in the broad moralistic era the screenplay wants to skewer, it could speak to its issues more volubly. Their personalities matter very little next to the stereotypes they fill: suicidal mistress, unstable war hero, prudish old man. Hester dines at the mother-in-law’s estate with one kind and drinks at the pub with another. It may be familiar, it may be relatable, but the issues of love and divorce take precedence over the people experiencing them, and for that it comes dangerously close to giving its issues top billing over the actors dealing with them. One must also wonder why Davies saw fit to reduce the role of ex-doctor Miller, Hester’s rescuer, only portrayed here in passing (by the very welcome Karl Johnson) as an irascible tenant in Hester’s building. Perhaps Davies thought their grounds for friendship too outdated – Miller is implied to be homosexual, so immediately assuming any kind of primal solidarity is a bit gauche – and sought to downplay their camaraderie in favor of a more modern attitude.
Reflecting on the expression from which the play and movie takes its name, it’s easy to see which of the two idiomatic threats Hester prefers. After having suffocated alongside her, the devil in Freddie’s fleeting outbursts are a relief after the stillness of the deep blue sea she has endured, whether they represent an actual, possible escape from her present situation or not. It isn’t unrealistic to hope for Hester’s happiness, but she won’t find it where the movie takes her, and so it relentlessly frustrates. The point is never lost that neither situation is ideal, and continues to drain emotions right up until the last shot, a slow zoom into the blasted remains of a building devastated in the Blitz, bookending the opening scene, that goes to show that scars can be overcome and ignored to an extent, but like with Hester’s troubles, they can’t be smoothed away.