Terence Davies returns to the bad old good old days of post-War England by way of Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. Against the backdrop of an emotionally repressed and class conscious country still reeling from the deprivations of war but with the social revolution of the 1960s not yet in sight, a doomed love triangle plays itself out among three people, each needing something the other cannot provide. Three terrific performances from Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston (Thor, War Horse, Midnight in Paris) and Simon Russell Beale (Orlando, TV’s MI-5) invigorate a finely tuned but deliberately paced and emotionally claustrophobic psychological study of human desire. Echoing David Lean’s Brief Encounter, The Deep Blue Sea takes its time delivering its emotional payload, but it quietly builds to a deeply moving finale that makes it all worthwhile.

“Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” So counsels Hester’s mother-in-law prophetically in flashback after the film has already opened with Hester (Weisz) attempting suicide. Hester is married to Sir William (Beale), a decent and kind but passionless judge of the High Court. Craving the feelings she’s missing, Hester gives up the stability and security Sir William provides for the fulfillment of more physical desires in the arms of handsome former RAF pilot Freddie (Hiddleston). Still living off his glory days as a World War II hero, the hard drinking layabout has matured little in years since he last flew in combat. He’s game for the good times, but balks at the idea of being attached to any one person or thing.

It’s a recipe for disaster, of course, but what makes it fascinating is how Davies refuses to pass judgment or cast a villain. Each character is flawed in some way and while they each are guilty of being selfish, they are not evil. The tragedy is that they are at cross purposes, each providing a piece of what the other needs, but not the whole thing.

In order to achieve these well-rounded, deeply human characters, Davies relies mightily on his talented cast. As Hester, Weisz dials her emotions down to a slow simmer, but you can feel them roiling away just below the surface. She’s the instigator of all the trouble in the film, but her needs are so basic and so human that it’s easy to identify with her. As Sir William, Beale is far too gentle and kind to be entirely blamed for not quite living up to all of Hester’s complicated needs. He’s not a bad person, he’s simply ill-equipped by his old-fashioned, upper class upbringing. Hiddleston meanwhile imbues the brash and somewhat callow Freddie with an easy charm and a forthrightness that makes his appeal obvious while also making it easy to overlook his faults.

After a highly dramatic opening that reaches a crescendo to the strains of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, The Deep Blue Sea retreats to a calmer emotional key and holds it except for the occasional outburst from Freddie. The restraint is oppressive at times and it can be difficult to sit through, but that just makes the climax all the more satisfying despite its subtlety. It’s in these final scenes that Weisz’s wonderful, quiet work finally pays off and so too does the film itself. The ending feels almost inevitable from the start, but it’s the carefully wrought psychological underpinnings along the way that ultimately give it its almost overwhelming power.

2 Responses to “The Deep Blue Sea (2012)”

  1. Yes, Barber’s Violin Concerto is a beautiful composition, and while not nearly as celebrated as his ‘Adagio For Strings’ is will hopefully receive some added appreciation after Davies’ employment here. But the master director uses music quite effectively throughout this romantically decadent and dreamy tale bathed in muted color and lighting and suffused with the intense emotions of Ratigan’s play. It’s the most plot-oriented of Davies’ films, and it contains (as you astutely note) three buffo performances. This is an economic piece that rightly announces the arrival of another exceptional work by an artist many consider Britain’s finest living director.

  2. I was turned off a bit at first by the Barber early in the film. Had the whole film been that heightened, I’m not sure it would’ve worked for me, but that first scene just sort of lingers throughout the film as subtext in the quieter moments.

    As I said in the ‘Cooler, I’m thinking about revisiting Davies, starting with Of Time and the City a film which I kind of hated but which I know you and critics in general rhapsodized over.

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