The Deep Blue Sea may be the most British film I have ever seen, and I’ve seen Captain British’s English Anti-Yankee Jamboree (as yet unreleased in any format). What makes the film stand apart from the likes of “Downton Abbey” or Sense & Sensibility is its pervasive use of context to tell its story, which isn’t so much about the characters – although they are exceptional – as it is the specific, post-World War II English culture in which they inhabit. I wonder how Terence Rattigan’s original play came across upon its original release in 1952. Is The Deep Blue Sea so much a product of its time that you had to actually be British in the 1950s to appreciate it?
The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer, the 40 year old wife of a High Court judge who has never been in love. Upon meeting former RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston of The Avengers), she falls swiftly into a passionate affair. When her husband William (Simon Russell Beale) discovers her secret, he swears never to divorce her, and out she goes to live a simpler but socially-unacceptable life with Freddie, a charming but less substantial individual whose indelicacies drive her to a shocking attempt at suicide.
It’s the aftermath of that act which forms The Deep Blue Sea’s narrative, as Freddie responds to the notion that the woman he loves would throw her life away for what he – and likely the audience – would consider a relatively trivial slight. As her relationship with Freddie dissolves she reencounters William, and the comfort of their marriage slips back into their conversation. William was no monster, and Freddie is no Adonis. But Hester loves who she loves, and Freddie’s the failure to return her love, for which she sacrificed so much, weighs so deeply on her psyche that, yes, suicide seemed like the proper response. There’s a nobility in her resolve, but also a selfishness. From a social perspective, perhaps she’s a romantic figure. But on an individual level, is she simply failing the people who care about her?
Critics have claimed that The Deep Blue Sea is a metaphor, or at least an intentional parallel, to Rattigan’s own experiences as a homosexual in a repressed culture. And indeed, the play was inspired by the suicide of a male actor with whom Rattigan had previously been involved. Director Terence Davies and other close sources dispute this intention, but there’s no denying that the story of The Deep Blue Sea equates romantic liberation with an act of fundamental social rebellion. The sacrifices Hester makes to be with the person she loves make even the tiniest betrayal of her affections into a life-altering loss. It might not be The Deep Blue Sea’s shoe, but the allegory definitely fits, and perhaps allows the story to resonate more deeply with modern audiences to whom heterosexual infidelity seems, if not necessarily socially acceptable, then at least only tokenly scandalous.
But these descriptions boil The Deep Blue Sea down to their emotional core, while Terence Davies is clearly equally invested in conveying the specific social and political mores of the early 1950s. Flashbacks to the blitz offer context, but without a personal connection on the part of the audience the exact relationship between Hester’s love triangle and the bombs dropping on London is a bit muddy. Perhaps it should have come with Cliff’s Notes. Or perhaps it's a simple cultural divide, keeping me at a distance from some perhaps finer qualities lost to me in The Deep Blue Sea.
It’s easy to feel a little lost in the cracks while watching The Deep Blue Sea, but the strength of the performances should be enough to pull you out again. Rachel Weisz in particular captures the inner turmoil and resolve of Hester Collyer in what may be the best performance of her career. But The Deep Blue Sea may be too dry and British for casual audiences. For those willing to take the plunge, they’ll find a treasure waiting for them at the bottom.