“I wouldn’t call it a tragedy. A bit sad really but hardly Socrates.”
That is Hester Collyer’s (Rachel Weisz) own description of her situation when her estranged husband, William (Simon Russell Beale), professes his horror at what’s become of her. It’s a wonderfully played moment by Weisz showing a rather dry self-awareness of her whole situation. The beauty and, yes, tragedy, of Hester is that she knew exactly what she was getting into when she started an affair with the alcoholic, shell-shocked ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), but wasn’t able to stop herself and is now living among the rubble, both figuratively and literally.
The Deep Blue Sea (based on the classic play by Terrence Ratigan), begins in 1950 with Hester attempting suicide in a run-down flat in London after writing a note to Freddie professing her love for him. The film then alternates between the events of this one very bad day, and everything leading up to that point. Hester married William, a thoroughly kind, decent, wealthy, upstanding, and elderly magistrate who acts and looks a lot like her vicar father. While she’s genuinely fond of him, she’s also bored and frustrated, yearning for something more exciting, more passionate, and a lot more physical.
Into the picture steps the handsome, dashing, young Freddie. They soon begin a torrid love affair that results in Hester moving in with him. All of this director Terence Davies films in beautifully lit soft focus footage that feels like a period piece in itself. Freddie doesn’t desert her and his feelings for her remain strong. But, as Hester observes, “zero minus zero is still zero.” When Freddie takes off for a weekend and forgets Hester’s birthday, she attempts to kill herself with pills. All this we see in a series of flashbacks as Hester is found and rescued by the landlady and an unlicensed medical professional. She then must deal with the fallout when both Freddie and William learn what she tried to do.
All three parts of this triangle are up to the acting task. Simon Russell Beale’s William brings a certain nobility and pathos to his role; we can see why Hester would love him like an uncle while realizing all too clearly why she was never in love with him. Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie at first seems to be the villain, a rather shallow, self-involved personality still living off his wartime glories. His initial response to Hester’s attempted suicide is to rant and rave about how much it inconveniences him. One of the movie’s bitter ironies is that, as Hester makes clear, she has no illusions about Freddie’s character, but couldn’t resist him anyway, reasons William attributes to primitive lust and she to natural humanity. Both explanations are true. But even Freddie resists easy categorization as a black hat in his final farewell to Hester.
The center of this triangle is Hester, and Rachel Weisz is quite simply a marvel in the role—passionate, self-destructive, perceptive, compassionate, and half-mad all at once. It is, quite frankly, the role of a lifetime. The Deep Blue Sea might not be Socrates, but it’s worth seeing.