With The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies selectively transforms a lesser-known Terence Rattigan play into a broody rumination on emotional freedom and frustrated desire. Davies abandons Rattigan’s linear narrative and compressed timeline in favor of a more free-form structure, one that underlines the ebb and flow of memory as it shuttles between past and present. At the same time, The Deep Blue Sea confirms Davies’s continued engagement with the period melodrama—in this case, the variety of “woman’s picture” exemplified by the doomed romanticism of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a touchstone that The Deep Blue Sea on several occasions blatantly references. Set against the backdrop of post-WWII Britain, a dowdy period of rationing and reconstruction, The Deep Blue Sea hinges on the seemingly irresolvable predicament of its heroine, Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz). Trapped within the confines of a passionless marriage to older, well-to-do Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), Hester vainly seeks satisfaction in an ardent affair with young, impulsive Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Absorbed in memories of his carefree pre-war days, Freddie ultimately cannot return Hester’s affection, and their relationship soon degenerates into noisy rows and mutual recriminations.
Signaling from the onset its emancipation from stage-bound prolixity, The Deep Blue Sea opens with a remarkable, nearly wordless sequence as Hester prepares to commit suicide by gassing herself, a fragmented montage punctuated by periodic fades to black, and set to Samuel Barber’s dolorous violin concerto. Losing consciousness, Hester’s mind casts back to earlier times: a fireside evening spent with William that brilliantly illuminates both the growing chasm between husband and wife, as well as the glow of almost paternalistic warmth that yet unites them; and other evenings at the pub with Freddie, the two of them chiming in on choruses of popular songs with the other patrons. Davies captures Hester and Freddie’s vertiginous, all-consuming sensuality with a bold overhead shot of the pair making love, the camera dizzily swirling through several 360-degree pivots.
A testament to Davies’s pictorial prowess, The Deep Blue Sea opens and closes with two elaborate tracking shots. The camera moves along an anonymous suburban London street, passing across the façade of a particular domicile as though at random, winding up at the window of Hester’s flat. (The final shot reverses the direction.) During a flashback to the war, another bravura shot (fully two minutes long) tracks along a subway platform. Evacuated underground by the Blitz, a cross-section of London citizenry listens, and slowly joins in, as a lone voice wails the mournful Irish ballad “Molly Malone.” Only at the end of the shot do we see Hester and William huddled together. Taken together, these moments reinforce the notion that the story we’re privy to at the moment is only one among countless untold others.
The Deep Blue Sea is amply and aptly generous to its three main characters, refusing easy conventions that would render William as entirely cold, aloof, and unlikeable; nor does it stint on showing Freddie’s callous brutality toward Hester, even as it suggests a number of plausible reasons for his behavior. Ultimately, this isn’t an either/or film. Caught, as its title indicates, “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Hester can only grow into a fully realized human being by letting go, releasing the hold that both men have on her. Davies again manages to convey this through the simplest of visual means: matched shots of Hester drawing closed the curtains of her dingy room on the night that sees her attempt her own death, and then, at film’s end, throwing the curtains open on the uncertain light of a new day.
Terence Davies and DP Florian Hoffmeister conspire to drench their studied compositions, as exactingly framed as an Old Master’s painting (Vermeer seems an obvious reference point), in luminous pools of light and shadow, often including some glossily reflective surface within the frame, all the better to highlight Hester’s indecisive double-mindedness. Likewise, the dreary, earth-tone color scheme and softened, hazy look of many scenes are entirely in keeping with a period piece that hinges on the free-ranging play of memory and desire. As a result, The Deep Blue Sea is an often achingly lovely film. For their part, Music Box Films does right by it, giving the film a nearly flawless Blu-ray transfer. On the audio front, the studio offers viewers a choice between 5.1 surround or two-channel stereo tracks. The surround mix effectively foregrounds the exquisite music, especially the Barber violin concerto that structures the opening sequence.
The commentary track, in point of fact an interview with Terence Davies conducted by critic Ian Hayden-Smith, delves deeply into every aspect of filmmaking. Davies takes a moment now and then to praise an inspired bit of actorly business, as well as practically gushing over the musical selections. It is, all told, a well-wrought and insightful track. Interviews with stars Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston allow the actors to ruminate on their characters’ backgrounds and motivations. "Master Class" is a half-hour Q&A wherein Davies discusses the source material, earlier film adaptations of Rattigan’s plays (though not David Mamet’s relatively recent take on The Winslow Boy), and explores the thinking that went into his rather significant alterations to the original play. "Realizing the Director’s Vision" allows collaborators like producer Kate Ogborn, DP Florian Hoffmeister, and production designer James Merifield to discuss the ins and outs of working with the punctilious Davies. A lavishly illustrated booklet includes a pair of revealing essays from producer Sean O’Connor and film critic Scott Tobias, both delineating Davies’s transformative process of adaptation.
A tale of two Terences, The Deep Blue Sea gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment from Music Box Films, with an exemplary transfer and an assortment of illuminating extras.