For the first seven and a half minutes of this film, the only spoken words are those of a young woman, and even those are hardly spontaneous since they comprise a letter read aloud. She does not have much to say – the most perfect letter of fifty-six words can hardly say more than a poem of equal length – even if her missive begins with a heartfelt address, "My darling Freddie." It concludes with an admission no less sincere: "I really do want to die."
Our place and time are “London, around 1950,” already imbuing the spectacle with a certain vagueness, as if it were not remembered properly or now no longer important. And, like true Greek tragedy, the events will unfold in a single twenty-four hour period of romance and release. The epicenter of this drama is a lovely thirtysomething by the name of Hester (Rachel Weisz); she will also be known to us as Lady Collyer, and in a lie of convenience, Mrs. Page. When we first see Hester, she stands placidly behind the cage of a wintry window, because she is very much a prisoner, be it in this home, a shabby brown collage she shares with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), or the majestic house she once inhabited as the bride of “the first man who asked me to marry him," Lord William Collyer (a sensational Simon Russell Beale). The namesake of one of the most famous adulteresses in literary history, Hester is most definitely the author of that final message of despair. And if the most mysterious thing in this world is a beautiful woman, such a woman who chooses, at the height of her powers, to leave this world must be of even greater interest. We examine her surroundings and see only darkness, brown or green, earthy colors, the soil to which she will return, and soon she lies down in front of a coin-operated gas furnace (I have never really understood how such devices work, much less kill, but we do see her wedding band in plain view in the foreground). As she tries to die, her memories stream out of her like that lethal gas: her husband, much older, heavy-set, in a dark library; then the lover outside, young, lean, and light, in motley colors. She beholds both these men, the first with shame, the latter with tender, almost teenage pudeur. Then comes their lovemaking, like a vortex, like a spiral, and Freddie admits he survived this battle, which was excitement and fear. There is "nothing like excitement and fear," and for some, love – especially if streaked with sex – remains the embodiment of excitement and fear. Revived, she is slapped and asked “how many.” She confesses to twelve, which could be lovers (her husband could be asking), or pills (her doctor); it will be the latter, although subsequent hints imply both categories might indeed be applicable.
This opening is impossible in a play, which is what our original must obviously be given the chalky-talkiness of the rest of the production. Apart from a minor player’s interjection here and there (most notably from William’s dracontine mother) this is a game of three: the beauty, the air force ace, and the moneyed judge who can offer everything a woman could desire except the brawny comfort of a man. What saves it from being a typical love triangle is the rare encounter of the two males (the only time they cross on screen, Freddie struts past his nemesis in fury); this is Hester’s pendulum, one she exposes early on with an ill-advised phone conversation (“Who else do you call darling?” asks an astonished William, recollecting the first line of her near-fatal letter). It is after this call that he is first referred to as Sir William, and their marriage assumes a different tenor, one akin to a contract with a profitable firm. The plot progresses into much more of a stage than a screen production, and by dint of her restraint and old-fashioned good looks, Weisz manages to present a confused, not a promiscuous woman (it is also insinuated that Sir William may never have provided her with any physical alternative). Hiddleston, on the other hand, is unconvincing, both as Freddie and as someone who cannot possibly be Freddie, the happy bourgeois business-type hoping to get hired by a South American firm. Maybe, just maybe, Hiddleston is cloaking his talents, under orders to appear limited to make Hester that much more mysterious: for why on earth would a woman like Hester ever fall for a cardboard cutout like Freddie? Yet of the three, Beale is the ornament, conveying fear (of his mother, of his age, of his marital miscalculation), puerility ("I’ll never give you a divorce"), and pompous pride with the slightest gesture. It is so easy for the cuckold to rage or overact; it is just as easy for him to fall over, dead and dreary. But Sir William sparkles with childish life, thinly-hidden curiosity as to why there ever was a Lady Collyer and why she was so beautiful, so unlike what, he clearly believes, he merited. Why, his tired face asks on numerous occasions, if she was destined to leave him for a man who matches her in age and looks, why did she ever go and shatter his wretched heart? There is a college term paper in the making on how Hester addresses her husband variably as "Bill" or "William," but the more careful viewer will notice the little things the camera and its accomplices do. When the lovers embrace upon Freddie’s return and realization that he forgot Hester’s birthday, her panting sounds more like someone dying; when he reads her horrible letter, the camera stays on her, as if it were she he was reading. And when a whole pub sings a song, only Hester won't know the words, because she is of a different demographic stratum, even if the whole pub is really singing it to her.
While deservingly admired by critics, The Deep Blue Sea was hardly given a chance by everyday filmgoers, many of whom deemed it slow and boring by virtue of its lack of violence, minimal nudity, scarce expletives, and prudent attention to character development. The selfsame dissatisfied lamented that Hester's motives were never revealed, since, for them, every plot detail has to be shown plainly, synchronized to some moronic soundtrack, periodically recapitulated, and crowned with weepy platitudes. The film is effective precisely because Hester's love is mysterious and inexplicable, not unlike the love, or lust, or obsession, in this work of genius. Regarding the film I have but two complaints: that, for a brief minute, "You belong to me" which is sung live (and beautifully) dissolves into a studio, professional recording; and, despite its appropriateness, the too-easy choice of title. Thus, when Hester mentions she is caught between the Devil and a boundless ocean, she is provided with a brief, sad lesson by Freddie’s landlady. Yes, the whole thing is silly; yes, Mrs. Elton seems to know quite well what true love is; but at the end of it all, we feel for Hester: her love is completely irrational, completely inexplicable, completely random, and also complete, and utter, and whole. And we wonder about the two men in her life, both so wrong for her and both so right. We understand being in love with the wrong person is like a chain without a final link, because the person you adore may very well cherish the same unrequited passion for a third, indifferent soul. And because, in many pathetic ways, William is just like Hester.