This is a weird weekend in movies, ladies and gents. Putting together the arthouse and mainstream pictures released in Portland today, there’s a huge variety of new arrivals on display (a stop-motion kids’ film, a rom-com, an action spectacular, a documentary on war, a documentary on Bob Marley, etc.). Yet for all of the different genres represented, it was hard to find a film for this weekend that I could get excited about. These movies either looked somewhat promising but came out to tepid critical reviews (looking at you, The Raven), or got a surprisingly good reception despite a totally boring appearance (The Five-Year Engagement).
I was just in the process of picking which film to be surprised or bored by today when I noticed that The Deep Blue Sea was playing in an exclusive engagement at Cinema 21. My ticket was immediately sold and I did not come away disappointed.
Today’s movie is set “Around 1950” (seriously, that’s the establishing title card) in London. Remember, this was just after World War II, so all the German bombings and air raids were still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s also worth remembering that this was just before the feminist movement of the 1960s.
See, this is the story of a woman in a passionless marriage with a High Court judge. She subsequently falls in love with a younger former RAF pilot and they engage in an affair. Also, the adulteress in this story is named Hester. If that didn’t make you groan out loud just now, then you need to read more.
On the surface, this is a very simple story. One that we’ve all seen and heard a million times before. Still, this story makes itself very unique in the details and in the execution. This is made obvious right at the outset, as Hester (played by Rachel Weisz) reads her suicide note over the opening credits.
Yes, the film begins with Hester trying and failing to kill herself. Through the first half of the movie, the attempt and its aftermath work as a sort of framing device, with the events leading up to it shown in flashback. Funnily enough, the movie starts with flashbacks to Hester’s passionate affair before showing us her married life. Though it works perfectly well in context, I’ll be doing the opposite for clarity’s sake.
Hester’s legal married husband is Sir William Collyer, played by Simon Russell Beale. It’s clear that he deeply loves his wife, but he insists on a marriage devoid of intimacy. Why? Well, his mother (played by Barbara Jefford) is one of those puritan types who could only have been considered rational in an age before mainstream feminism. She’s very closed-minded, very snobby, and extremely wary about the dangers of mindless passion. Of course, it doesn’t help that Bill is a man quite visibly older than his wife.
The thing to keep in mind about Bill is that he’s not a bad guy. He’s very smart, he’s very sweet, and he genuinely seems to care a great deal for Hester. Unfortunately, he’s a mama’s boy, and his mama just happens to be a colossal bitch. I should also add that he acts like a dick toward Hester when he first finds out about the affair (really, can you blame him?), but his temper does fade when we next see him about ten months later. Still, the sticking problem with Bill is that he can’t give Hester what she wants. Here’s a man who knows absolutely nothing about how to please a woman, and he can offer absolutely nothing except financial stability.
On the opposite end of the love triangle is Freddy Page, played by Tom “Loki” Hiddleston. The premise naturally dictates that he’s the exact opposite of Bill, so he’s younger while Bill is old, he’s unemployed and poor while Bill is a wealthy judge, he’s passionate while Bill is effectively impotent, yadda yadda yadda. But much like Bill, to describe Freddy in such two-dimensional terms would be doing a grave disservice to the character and to Hiddleston’s performance.
Something to remember about Freddy is that he’s a veteran of a war that’s only a few years gone. What’s more, he felt alive on the battlefield in a way that he hasn’t felt since. So of course he’s feeling disconnected from the world around him. Far more important is that Freddy and Hester have a difficult relationship for precisely the same reason that they started a relationship to begin with: They’re both creatures of passion. They’re unafraid to invest emotionally in each other. This means that at the first sign that the relationship isn’t working — say, when one of them attempts suicide — of course they fly off the handle and get their hearts totally broken in the process. They make love every bit as passionately as they fight. Doing something halfway just isn’t in their nature.
Basically put, this is a very unstable love triangle. On one side, Hester and Freddy are so unpredictable and their emotions are so volatile that there’s no way of knowing whether or not they’ll get back together. The other side is every bit as difficult to figure out. Even if Bill isn’t as susceptible to mindless infatuation, he’s still so much in love with Hester and so badly hurt by her that there’s no telling what he’ll do. Hell, given how rocky Hester’s love life is right now, it’s not inconceivable that she’d run back to her husband.
Ultimately, this is what puts the movie above and beyond most cinematic romances. These characters feel so authentic and their dilemmas are so complex that there’s never any guarantee of a storybook ending. But then, the movie’s opening should be sign enough of that.
Another thing that struck me about this film was its use of dialogue. Specifically, I mean that it’s relatively scarce. Entire scenes in this movie go by without a single word spoken, yet the emotional heavy lifting is taken care of through other measures. The score, for example, is almost overbearing in how melodramatic it is, but it certainly gets the job done. The visuals are even more impressive, with brilliant use of light, shadow, and color, as well as some novel movements here and there. But of course, it’s the performances that really sell the emotion. The chemistry between the three leads is absolutely smoldering, and they’re all amazing at making their thoughts known with nothing but raw emotion. Even when they speak — and there’s seldom a word wasted in this film — what they’re saying doesn’t tell nearly as much as how they’re saying it.
My favorite case in point comes roughly halfway through the film, when Hester and Freddy meet in a bar. Everyone there is singing so loudly that we can’t hear a word the two lovers are saying, and the camera is far enough away that we can see just how lost in the crowd they are. Still, the shot is staged in such a way that we can clearly see our leads, and we can easily tell through their actions what’s being said, even if we can’t hear it. Brilliantly done.
That said, a less patient moviegoer might think that the film is extremely boring. After all, the story is admittedly very simple and there are huge stretches of silence that might be considered redundant. However, I disagree with that hypothetical assessment. Like I said before, even when these characters are silent, they’re screaming out loud. We can clearly see the internal conflicts as well as the external conflicts, and it’s riveting to watch. This also leads to a great deal of the movie’s tension, as it leaves us waiting to see which way the characters are going to snap and when.
There are also a few such moments that lend themselves to the period setting. One example is a flashback to a London Underground station, where Hester and Bill are waiting out an air raid with several other British citizens, all of whom are singing a particularly dreary rendition of “Molly Malone.” It does absolutely nothing to advance the narrative in any way, but it does a fantastic job of putting us in Hester’s mindset at that moment. It takes us back to a scary and hopeless scenario, the kind of terrible time in life that the good times are meant to compensate for.
The word for The Deep Blue Sea is “intimate.” The leads are all three-dimensional, their inner conflicts are compelling to watch, and their thoughts are made clear by the masterful cinematography and score. It also helps that the actors are all great enough to provide gold-plated performances with a minimum of dialogue. This is a film unafraid to take its time, drawing out the tension through stillness and silence. Moviegoers content with formulaic rom-coms won’t be able to stand this movie, and they’ll be the poorer for it.