If The Deep Blue Sea had maintained the bravura formalist intensity of its opening third – all rich image and swooning score, like a silent film told in lushly burnished Instagram hues – writer-director Terence Davies may have fashioned some sort of retro masterpiece. As it is, we’re simply left with one of the best movies of the year.
Based on a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea is set in post-war London, where Hester, a judge’s wife played by Rachel Weisz, has moved in with her erratic lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a Royal Air Force veteran. She’s psychologically torn between these two opposing forces – between dull stability and erotic recklessness – to the point that the opening section details her hazy thoughts and memories as she downs a bottle of pills, opens up a gas valve and waits for them to take lethal effect. Davies stages this like an operetta – it’s dominated by the strains of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14 – and it goes on for so long that I began to think the entire film would proceed this way. Alas, someone slaps Hester awake, the music cuts off and the film is yanked down from the ethereal heavens to conventional earth.
It’s there that we realize what a familiar tale The Deep Blue Sea tells – even an obvious one. There is Hester’s name, of course, and the fact that she wears scarlet red in almost every scene with Freddie. By the time Hester’s mother-in-law tells her to “beware of passion,” you can see the trajectory of the narrative plotting itself well ahead of you, and indeed it proceeds that way step by step.
Some have taken solace in the performances by Weisz and Hiddleston, but I found both to be clear reminders that this material is based on a play. In the wake of Hester’s suicide attempt, which enrages the otherwise jovial Freddie, they have a series of arguments which take the form of elegant debates, each person carefully stacking their words like well-placed bricks. It’s impressively done, but these are stage turns, in which the dialogue takes precedence over all else.
That’s in striking contrast to the visual flourishes that are the movie’s crowning achievement. Sometimes you’re taken aback by a single shot, including one of Hester at tea. The color scheme appears to split the screen in half, with Hester in blue on the right and a lamp behind her, to the left, emitting a soft, gold glow. Far more intricate is an elaborate tracking shot in London’s subway, where the camera traces the terrified faces of Londoners during an air raid, eventually settling on Hester and her husband (Simon Russell Beale) in comforting embrace. The Deep Blue Sea is so ravishing as pure cinema, it would likely work just as well – if not better – if the dialogue was turned down and the Barber played on.