Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea is a miserable slog of a movie. Adapted from the 1952 award winning play by Terence Rattigan, the film is set in depressive post-war England, and recounts — with all the formality of a “Dear John” letter — the romantic turbulence that culminates in the attempted suicide of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz; The Whistleblower). Of a time and place where emotional outbursts are met with clipped replies or protracted scenes of silence, this is a film that captures with unfortunate accuracy the banality of despair and the bleak inevitability of heartbreak. It’s an experience as cold, unwelcoming and void of feeling as the bottom of the deep blue sea.
When we first meet the emotionally dependent Hester, she has already resigned herself to die. Trapped in a marriage to a well-meaning but passionless older man, her once lively spirit has been smothered by her surroundings. An affair with a charming RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston; War Horse) offers some temporarily relief, but soon he too begins to tire of Hester’s overbearing affections. The film cuts back and forth between the months before and days after Hester’s’ botched suicide attempt, rapidly instilling in the audience the same sensations of futility and psychological acquiescence being experienced by its heroine.
The Deep Blue Sea may very well be an accurate portrayal of a disintegrating relationship and the depression that goes along with it. But as was proved by Lars von Trier’s tedious mental illness parable Melancholia: just because something is realistic, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting, revelatory or in any-way enjoyable to watch. Break-ups so often bring out the worst in people, so it’s little surprise that neither Hester nor Hiddleston’s Freddie come across as even the least bit sympathetic. Their relationship is characterised mostly by passive-aggression and undignified pleading; moments of overwrought melodrama are thrown in as punctuation. The result is total audience detachment. Hester’s cuckolded husband (Simon Russell Beale; My Week with Marilyn) is perhaps marginally less unlikeable, although I can certainly understand not wanting to be married to him either.
Hester survives her suicide attempt, but the life of the movie isn’t nearly so lucky. By the time it reaches its finale, emotional inertia has seeped into every corner of the film like invisible poisonous gas. Silent. Suffocating. Deadly.