As well made as I found The Deep Blue Sea, I’m amazed that it took ninety-four minutes to say what could easily have been said in as little as fifteen or twenty. Adapted from the stage play by Terence Rattigan, it tells the incredibly simple story of a woman who leaves behind a secure but sexless marriage for a passionate but reckless affair. With neither relationship able to give her all of what she wants, she must make a choice between going on living or dying alone. Plot wise, there really is nothing more to the film than that. I have not seen or read the original play, although on the basis of what I’ve read about it, it seems like one of the characters, an ex-doctor, had a much more prominent role than he had in the film. I can’t help but wonder if his inclusion would have made the story seem more substantive and less dragged out.
Taking place in London just after World War II (an opening title card gives us the vague timeline of “around 1950”), the central character is a woman named Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), whose story is told as a combination of flashback sequences and present moments, the latter of which unfold over the course of roughly one day. At the start, she attempts suicide by downing several aspirins and letting her apartment flood with gas fumes from the furnace. She’s rescued in time. Left alone to reflect, we get glimpses of the events leading up to her attempt. She was married to an older, well-respected High Court judge named William (Simon Russell Beale). Despite his wealth, his status, and his highly proper behavior, Hester fell out of love with him for his lack of infatuation.
She soon begins an affair with a seemingly high-spirited former RAF pilot named Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). At last, she finds the physical passion she so desired. William soon catches on, and although he never raises his voice or his hand to her, he decrees that he will never grant her a divorce. Hester moves into Freddie’s inner city apartment, which is an obvious step down from the upscale luxury of William’s estate. What started off so well between Hester and Freddie soon begins to decline. Despite the physical attention he gives her, it doesn’t seem he’s capable of financial or emotional stability. He forgets important events, like Hester’s birthday. He isn’t as cultured as she is, a fact she finds bothersome. It also seems he hasn’t been truly happy since the war ended, and so he drinks in excess.
William will reappear several times throughout the film. After the initial shock of learning of her affair, he finds he’s much more willing to give her the divorce she wants. All the same, he’s genuinely baffled by her rejection of him. Perhaps he wasn’t as physically inclined as Freddie, but did feel genuine affection for Hester. He still does. Why is this not enough for her? She tries to explain it to him, although it comes off as little more than excuse-making – which is to say, she makes everything sound much more complicated than it actually is. This isn’t to say that emotions aren’t complicated, because they very much are, especially in matters of love. However, every conversation she has with William is an exercise in padded dialogue. If she would just trim away the fat and make her point, things would go much more smoothly.
Despite her verbal predilections, the film does feature some exquisitely written passages. The best are reserved for two scenes between Hester and William’s puritanical mother (Barbara Jefford). I will not quote any specific lines for want of you hearing them firsthand. Just know this: Mrs. Collyer repeatedly makes it clear, in her own prim and proper way, that Hester does absolutely nothing right and is not good enough for her son. There’s also one great scene with the ex-doctor, whose name escapes me at the moment; when he checks on Hester after her suicide attempt, he delivers to William a zinger so deliciously witty that he could have easily been quoting Oscar Wilde.
Perhaps it’s because of the story’s innate simplicity that it speaks so fluently in the language of melodrama. One of the most noticeable elements is Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto, Op. 14” (the film does not contain original score material). Here is a piece of music that oozes solemnity from every pore, sounding more like tonal weeping than like an orchestral piece. Long, slow solo sections are played vibrato at the high end of the scale; they’re so strategically placed that they’re obviously intended to represent Hester’s emotional state. There’s no rule stating that movies like The Deep Blue Sea need to be complicated or multilayered in order to work. All the same, filmmakers should give you more of a reason to see something apart from an easily understood relationship problem.