Hester (Rachel Weisz) shares a kiss with her lover,
Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), in The Deep Blue Sea.
All too often, the word "melodrama" has a negative connotation. It's used interchangeably with "manipulative" to describe a film with less-than-authentic emotions. The truth is that the melodrama is a perfectly respectable genre of film with a number of genuine masterpieces to its name (Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven comes immediately to mind). Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is unapologetically a melodrama, and while I appreciated its devotion to the conventions of the genre, there's one important ingredient missing: A reason to care about these people and their problems.
The film takes place in England around 1950, just as Hester (Rachel Weisz) is about to kill herself. We learn through flashbacks that she's legally married to a judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), and though she respects him, there's very little love between them. So she starts an affair with a charismatic former RAF pilot, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), whom she loves with an undying passion. When William finds out, he demands she leave at once, but won't grant her the divorce that would make her shacking up with Freddie socially acceptable.
She does so anyway, but Freddie is far from a perfect partner. He drinks—a lot. He doesn't have a job, and he only shows Hester love in the physical sense. Ultimately, it's her own obsessive passion that drives her to attempt suicide, but she fails. And when Freddie finds out what she's done, he goes ballistic. And with her sanity at its breaking point, Hester must decide whether this relationship is worth her life.
The stakes in The Deep Blue Sea are extraordinarily high, but the film's biggest failing is that it never makes the choices seem comparable. Freddie or your life? It's hardly a debate. It'd be one thing if he was a gentleman or reciprocated the love Hester showed him, but he's something of a pompous asshole, and the hold he has over Hester never quite seems believable. It's a shame, really, because her despair is palpable, but that's the only real note the film successfully hits.
Rachel Weisz, predictably, is exceptional. Hester (who is appropriately named, I should point out) is in various stages of sadness throughout the film, but she's also extremely conflicted. She knows as well as anyone that being with Freddie has been an emotional disaster for her, but she accepts the bad because the few good moments are worth it to her. Weisz sells this with poise and grace. She's a tremendous actress, and after a terrible performance in last year's Dream House, she's once again top of her game, and it's very nice to have her back.
Tom Hiddleston lives up to the lofty expectations set by great turns last year in Thor and Midnight in Paris. His Freddie is a tempermental chap—sometimes destructively so. But his temper keeps us on edge, despite the fact that the screenplay doesn't give him enough humanity to make him seem like a viable suitor for the obviously intelligent Hester. Equalling Hiddleston in smaller and much more subdued roles are Beale (as Hester's husband) and Ann Mitchell (as Hester and Freddie's landlady).
The film has an excellent sense of time and place, and as such, it's quite a achievement as far as craft goes. The costumes feel very authentic, and the score (though occasionally feeling a bit over-the-top) is appropriate for the kind of film Davies has made. Even more impressive is the cinematography. There's a great tracking shot about two-thirds of the way through the film, but even beyond that, the way Davies' camera captures light gives the entire thing a dreamlike quality that makes up a bit for the screenplay's character deficiencies. Nothing Freddie and Hester do together necessarily make us think they should be a couple, but the look the film gives them when they are together (especially compared to the way they look when they're apart) is etherial—almost too beautiful to be true.
The Deep Blue Sea won't appeal to many people, but those who found films like Revolutionary Road and Atonement worthy might enjoy what Davies has to offer. For me, it's barely a miss. There's a lot to appreciate, but when the central conflict in a melodrama fails to engage you emotionally, it's hard to give it a true recommendation.