The Deep Blue Sea begins with a long take where the camera pans across an apartment building, dollies up the side, and halts on Hester (Rachel Weisz), standing in a window, about to attempt suicide.
This tricky, evocative shot reminds us that writer-director Terence Davies takes his time, both in making movies (one every five years or so) and within them. Adapted from a 1952 play, The Deep Blue Sea goes on to look back on Hester’s life. And as it fades from her failed suicide attempt into the early moments of her relationship with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), the time involved is highlighted by a relentless classical score (recalling the beginning of Melancholia, but without Lars Von Trier’s touch of madness).
At first, it seems as if the material has been opened up from the stage and will show Hester’s life in fragments. She meets Freddie, a former Royal Air Force pilot, while married to William (Simon Russell Beale), an older judge, well to do but unexciting. In other words, the movie, like so many romances both more and less serious before it, pits poorness, passion, and fearlessness over rich, uptight lovelessness. William’s awful mother (Barbara Jefford) makes this contrast explicit when she issues this warning to her daughter-in-law: “Beware of passion. It always leads to something ugly.” Shortly thereafter, William discovers her affair—he’s angry, and angrier still when she announces her intent to leave him and move into a shabby apartment with Freddie.
As movie jumps ahead to the affair’s final days, Hester is trying to salvage her relationship with the mercurial Freddie, who has cooled toward her, possibly because of his drinking problem, possibly because his struggles with post-war trauma or maybe because he’s never been as interested in her as she is in him. The ambiguity is welcome initially, but the duet between Freddie’s anger and Hester’s desperation becomes repetitive. Their dialogue sounds increasingly stiff and stagy, injecting histrionic shouting into Davies’s preferred mood of lamp-lit darkness and funereal quiet.
Despite the shouting, the movie’s pacing stays consistent with that mood, ranging from a crawl to a standstill. Sometimes this deliberateness of technique builds to an unusual kind of immediacy, like the overhead shot that follows Hester through a crowded bar as she pushes through to reach Freddie, who compounds his cruelty by abruptly brushing her off. More often, though, the persistent slowness and sureness of Davies’ compositions have a distancing effect. The movie verges on clinical, yet it’s also strangely imprecise: at times, it seems that Davies is cutting around the center of Hester and Freddie’s courtship rather than focusing on it. Their relationship becomes an idea of a passionate affair rather than a dramatized experience.
This may be intentional, as Freddie is as much a symbol to Hester—of risk, of passion, of independence—as a lover. But he’s a symbol to the audience, too, a surly cipher set against William’s genteel cipher. And Hester herself inspires more pity than true empathy. Weisz, a wonderful actress, commits to the movie’s dourness and does her best to bring this character to life. Beale, too, does an admirable job of making William, a character who could easily be played as a pompous bore, more sweetly clueless than detestable; he cares for his wife and wants to provide for her, even if his priorities are shaped more by family and society than unbridled feelings. Hiddleston, unfortunately, has less to work with: Freddie’s occasional charm is obscured by the material’s focus on the unexplained rift between him and Hester.
Still, none the actors has much room to maneuver. Davies appears far more interested in carefully crafted mood than people or actions—that, and stretching 30 or 40 minutes’ worth of story to fit the movie’s 98-minute running time. It’s all part of a controlled attempt to evoke an affair’s slog toward the end. But The Deep Blue Sea feels like that end for the better part of an hour and a half.