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The Deep Blue Sea

“Beware of passion, Hester.  It always leads to something ugly.”

“What would you replace it with?”

“A guarded enthusiasm.  It’s safer.”

“But much duller.”

The relationship between love and choice has always been a curious one to me.  Most people will insist, and I would agree, that without choice there can be no love – that a robot cannot love, and anyone forced or manipulated into a relationship has had a serious violence done against their soul.  And yet when it comes to “falling in love,” there seems to be little choice involved.  When you find yourself attracted to or fascinated by someone, you can choose to pursue that attraction, or to ignore it.  You can feed or starve it, and it will grow or die.  But that initial, primal attraction seems to be a matter beyond choice.

“The Deep Blue Sea” is about a love triangle of people helpless before their own hearts.  Rachel Weisz is Hester, a woman bored in her marriage to Sir William (Simon Russel Beale), a man who loves her and takes care of her with great affection, but keeps things buttoned up.  The young, dashing Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) flirts with Hester, and she chooses to feed that attraction — and then must spend the rest of the film dealing with the consequences of that choice.  She falls desperately, helplessly in love with him, only to find that his desire for her runs about an inch deep.  “That’s what the story is about–that love isn’t a choice,” Weisz says, in an interview with Time magazine. “She falls in love in the big capital-L sense of the word.”  

This all sounds very sordid and soap opera-ish, but plays just the opposite.  To begin with, it’s from playwright Terrence Rattigan, one of the bright lights in English theater in the late ’40s and early ’50s.  His script gives each character dimension.  Hester is in the grips of a passion she can’t control, but she’s not the only one in a mess here.  Sir William really wants to despise her, but finds himself caring for her nonetheless.  I wouldn’t say he’s still in love with her — it’s doubtful he ever was – but his urge to take care of her is undiminished.  The façade of disdain and “sanctimoniousness” falls away quickly.  And as for Freddy, he wishes he could return Hester’s love with the heat and intensity she gives it.  It’s clear that her accusation that he doesn’t love her as much as she loves him started out like a slap in the face and, over time, have become something much less bearable.  They’re not that different.

Director Terence Davies brings an impressive sense of textures and atmosphere to the story.  Much of it takes place within the claustrophobic apartment where Hester and Freddie have shacked up.  It’s a claustrophobic space and Davis uses softy focus and gauzy lenses to further advance a feeling of staleness and death within it. The terrible yellow wallpaper reminds me of a story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a woman confined to bed by her husband, descending into madness.

Decor like this might drive anyone to madness.

“It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper – the smell! … The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.”

Rachel Weisz delivers a powerful and heartbreaking performance as Hester. As Bilge Ebiri says, “There’s something brave and tragic about this woman who, in her own quiet way, refuses to choose between comfort and joy.” In a role that could be so easily overplayed – it would be hard to see Hester as a histrionic, mentally ill shrew — Weisz underplays almost every scene, giving the counterpoints – the few scenes in which she does raise her voice — a startling power.  She imbues the character with a sad dignity and an almost terrifying sense of self-control.  Throughout the film, and most especially in the last scene, we see a woman poised on the very edge of a terrifying precipice, using every ounce of self-control and restraint available to her to keep from tumbling into the abyss.  In her case, the space between the devil and the deep blue sea is a razor-thin edge.




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