Beware of Passion: ‘The Deep Blue Sea’

The Deep Blue Sea is based on the ’50s stage play written by Terence Rattigan. It tells the story of a woman named Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who rejects her role as the wife of Sir William Collyer, an affluent judge played by Simon Russell Beale, and engages in a tumultuous love affair with a man named Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). By today’s standards, the magnitude of Hester’s choices are not nearly as subversive as they were at the time of the play’s conception. Because of this, modern audiences may find it difficult relating to or even liking Hester. However,the notion of how being in love can change you for good or bad and the subjectiveness of the emotion itself, are themes that remain relatable 60 years later.

The Deep Blue Sea’s journey from a successful British play to the big screen is explained in great detail in a booklet included with the DVD. Also in the booklet is a very thorough critical analysis of the movie by film editor Scott Tobias along with biographies of Terence Rattigan and director/screenwriter Terence Davies.

The Deep Blue Sea is meant for an intellectual, discerning audience. The film, which remains set in the ’50s, does not follow a linear plotline, which leaves a great deal of room for interpretation regarding certain events. Davies doesn’t consider that viewers, in particular an American audience, will fail to make the correct assumptions and draw accurate conclusions. This is a likely scenario, if you take into account that many people wil lack familiarity with the stage play. It’s the director’s job to guide the audience, so they are able to clearly recognize his vision.

A perfect example is the music used in the film. According to producer Sean O’Conner Davies had fixated on the score before he even completed the screenplay:

“Terence said that he had chosen the music he would like to use: the Second Movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. ‘It’s a knockout,’ he said, again with his infectious enthusiasm. The piece was new to me-and a revelation in the context of Rattigan’s play. What Terence had understood is the great depths of emotion that lie at the heart of The Deep Blue Sea-despite the period setting , there’s a timeless , classical stature in Hester’s dark night of the soul-and it was this that Terence was keen to reveal.”

How likely is the average moviegoer to make this connection? Davies relies on a manipulation of the senses to explore the deeper meaning of the story. He uses lighting, spacing, color and locations to enrich the text. At the same time, he has to be true to the time period of post-war Britain. Included in the DVD, is a feature entitled Realizing the Director’s Vision, which includes interviews that explore Davies’ expectations regarding the look of the film and how they were met.

“There was a sensation of a post-war fatigue that he wanted to feel in the lighting,” says cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. Because Davies grew up during this time period, he felt passionate about recreating the sense of drabness that enveloped London immediately after the war. In contrast, just one light could provide a much-needed warmth and richness. “What I love are pools of light and textured shadow between them,” Davies states. “Light falling window through a window on a subject is another I’m obsessed with, but that’s Vermeer. I’m obsessed with Vermeer,” he says. Hester’s mental state is illustrated by the use of light.

The location was chosen based on Davies color palette of blues and greys. Color is used sparsely and only in a metaphorical context in the film. “Very rarely did you see primary color, so it was finding what was true to that period,” Davies states.

Davies’ austerity with the dialogue in favor of relying more on location, spacing, physical expression, lighting and music to tell the story is a very cerebral approach. The subtleties of these tools make the film more of a subjective experience, guaranteeing that each individual moviegoer won’t necessarily take away from the film what Davies is trying to convey.

As the opening credits roll, we hear a woman’s voice reading a letter that she has written to a man named Freddie. Initially, it seems that it could be a love letter or a letter ending the relationship. It turns out to be a suicide note. When we see her, she is moving with purpose around a shabby bedsit, a one-room apartment that is a combination of bedroom and sitting room with cooking facilities. She closes the blinds, locks the door, swallows a handful of pills and turns on the fireplace gas.

As she loses consciousness, the first image the audience sees is the woman sitting in a cozy library with an older gentleman. The nature of their relationship is not clear, but he looks upon her with contentment while she struggles to hold back tears. There are no words exchanged between them, so there is no obvious reason for her unhappiness until the next scene which shows Hester sitting on a chaise lounge being told how attractive she is by a very tall dashing younger man.

This scene transitions into another with her and the older gentleman walking together and chastely kissing before parting ways. Next, an unexpected encounter with the younger man which leads to drinks in a pub. We learn he was a soldier, and he animatedly regales her with a war story. She is riveted, and as the story ends, they engage in a passionate kiss. The next images are of the couple intertwined, making love. The story then returns to the dreary bedsit as a woman calls the name Mrs. Page urgently through the door.

Her life spared because of nosy neighbors, Mrs. Page immediately pulls herself together and asks her landlady, Mrs. Elton if she would mind not mentioning her “idiotic accident” to Mr. Page. Mrs Elton agrees. Her suicide attempt a failure, Mrs. Page removes a letter from the fireplace mantel and puts it in her pocket. Still a bit groggy, she lies on a couch, and the flashbacks continue as she mentally recounts the events that have led her to this particular place and time. She is seen pleading with her father, a pastor, for what seems like advice but what is really approval and empathy. This is something he is unwilling to give, simply reminding her of her responsibilities as a wife and urging her to fulfill them.

The story becomes more coherent and starts to more readily unfold when the woman, whose name we finally learn is Hester, accompanies the older gentleman, her husband, to her mother-in-law’s home in the country for a visit. We learn her husband is rendered figuratively impotent in the presence of his mother and warns his wife to exercise tolerance in her interactions with the old woman. It’s soon evident that the old woman is combative and not especially fond of her daughter-in-law. However, she does give Hester advice that resonates throughout the remainder of the film, “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” This advice obviously riles Hester who responds “What would you replace it with?” she asks. “A guarded enthusiasm. It’s safer,” she says. “But much duller,” mutters Hester.

During this visit, a call between Hester and Freddy is overheard, and Hester’s husband William finds out she has been engaged in an affair with this other man for months. William refuses to divorce her, and says he never wants to see her again. This is when Lady Hester Collyer abandons not only all the comforts of her upper-class existence but also the morals and responsibilities she has adhered to her entire life. She is now Mrs. Page, even if in name only. It’s interesting that the female protagonist shares a moniker with Hester Prynne from The Crucible, a woman who also defied societal norms to pursue a forbidden love.

The story returns to Hester contemplating the events that have led to the recent suicide attempt, when Mr. Freddie Page returns from a weekend of golfing. He has forgotten her birthday and like a sheepish schoolboy uses his sexuality to gain forgiveness. He soon finds the suicide note in her pocket, and the tables are turned as she asks for his forgiveness. He immediately storms out.

Hester finds him drinking with a friend at the local pub, and an altercation between the two reveals the major unfixable flaw in their relationship; he does not love her as much as she loves him. “I never gave myself a big build-up. You knew exactly what you were getting,” he shouts. “Yes, I knew the risk I was taking… and I took it!” she responds. “How I hate being tangled up in other people’s emotions!” he screams. He throws a tantrum, because he is expected to care about her pain. It’s very difficult to understand what is so loveable about this man. Since the story is told from Hester’s point of view, the audience gets a very superficial impression of Freddie. Yes, he can be funny and charming and they share an amazing sexual chemistry, but he is also immature and lazy and incapable of deep emotion.

To really understand these characters and their relationship to each other, it’s vital to watch the interviews with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. Although Weisz’s interpretation of Hester is that “she is a woman trying to make her own life.” The statement seems only accurate in the sense that she wants the freedom to choose who she wants to be with, but what comes across on screen is a woman desperate to be loved. Yes, she defies society’s expectations, but when it doesn’t work out, she tries to kill herself. Whenever she doesn’t get the attention from Freddie that she craves, Hester will often resort to begging, bargaining and mental and emotional manipulation. The penultimate example of this manipulation is obviously her botched suicide attempt.

Some women will struggle to relate to Hester, because she’s never been alone. Freddie views her need for love as weakness, “(She) marries the first man who asks her and falls in love with the first man who gives her the eye,” he says. “I think it’s a study of a woman who’s really trying to shape her own life for herself,” Weisz says. This interpretation really doesn’t become evident until the end of the film when she finally regains some of her dignity.

Tom Hiddleston gives the audience a greater understanding of Freddie’s personality during his interview. “He’s a war hero, and I think that experience has given him a vitality which is kind of magnetic. He has huge charisma,” states Hiddleston. “Hester needs love that she hasn’t received before, and Freddy can offer that because Freddy is alive… but in a flawed way. His consciousness will only go so deep before he shuts off,” Hiddleston continues. “And even that is interesting, that part of why Freddy shuts off from commitment. Why he shuts off possibly from loving her in the way that she would like to be loved by him,” he states.

On her way home, Hester places a call to Freddie who has retreated to a mutual friend’s home. She learns he has been offered a job in South America. Realizing he is slipping from her grasp for good, she asks him to come and collect his things himself, so that they can say goodbye. Her request is met with a dial tone, which causes her to race down onto a subway platform. Apparently planning to throw herself in front of an oncoming train, Hester pauses. There is a flashback of her and William Collyer seeking refuge in a Tube tunnel during the war to escape a bombing attack. Perhaps she recognizes the insignificance of one failed love affair in the larger context of life. Hester climbs back up the subway steps and goes home.

In the hallway, she peeks through an open door and witnesses a tender moment between Mrs. Elton and her gravely ill husband. The landlady emerges from her apartment to tell Hester that she doesn’t want a repeat of the day’s earlier events. Hester responds, “Sometimes it’s difficult to judge when you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” she states. Hester’s dilemma is how to go on living when the person you love is incapable or unwilling to really love you back. “A lot of rubbish is talked about love,” Mrs.Elton replies. “You know what real love is?” she asks. “It’s wiping someone’s arse or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves. And letting them keep their dignity so you can both go on,” she states. “Suicide? No one’s worth it,” she says.

When Freddie finally ends the relationship, their final moments together are quiet—almost mundane. She asks him if he’s had breakfast and shines his shoes, and he offers her his golf clubs to sell for rent. “It’s never too late to late to begin again, eh?” he asks. “Isn’t that what they say?” “Yes,” she answers. “That’s what they say.”

Hester’s expression says more than any dialogue could convey. She’s watching the only man she’s ever loved pack his bags and walk away. All the fiery passion between them now quelled. All of her bargaining, begging and pleading finally finished as she accepts a person can’t be in love alone. The most heartbreaking part of the film comes when Freddie tells her goodbye. She visibly struggles to raise her head and look him in the eye for the last time. It’s a simple yet painful act that proves she finally has the strength to move forward with her life, alone.

After he leaves, Hester sees a pair of his gloves and immediately holds them up to her face, the lingering smell her small comfort. She weeps very briefly and then goes to turn on the gas to the fireplace. For a brief moment you wonder, but the flame starts to burn. She moves to the window and opens the curtain. She stands bathed in sunlight, looking outside. “No rainbows and cloudless skies in the distance by any means,” writes O’Connor “but it’s an ending expressing qualified hope for Hester: she will be poorer perhaps, and maybe lonely, but at least she’ll have a future on her own terms.”

The DVD includes a director’s commentary which really just further expands on the technical elements already touched upon in Realizing the Director’s Vision. Davies speaks in very low rushed tones, and that coupled makes it difficult to understand. There’s also a Terence Davies’ Master Class which is a reiteration of the Deep Blue Sea’s metamorphosis from a stage play to a film.

RATING 6 / 10