With Cannes Film Festival going on in the backdrop, it felt like as good an opportunity as ever to get up to date on some festival treats from yesteryear, and this one's just been beckoning to me for months. Quite often with a period film, the filmmaker becomes so preoccupied with pretentious mannerisms and stiff set design that they simply ignore the other aspects of the film. "The King's Speech" seems all too easy an example to be made of period-piece opportunities being trumped by period piece aesthetic. "The Deep Blue Sea" finds its setting as a necessity of its story, and not the other way around. As such, everything about the design comes from the meaning of the narrative.
A romance about a woman who decides to leave her husband in favor of an exciting younger man isn't the most original thing in the world, and writer/director Terrence Davies realizes that just under the wire. To that point, the film begins with the recital of a suicide letter, written by Rachel Weisz' Hester Collyer. The conditions of this letter aren't quite known until they're slowly revealed. Usually you'd expect a suicide to be the definitive end of a story, but the world and the people in it need something more from Hester to let her get away with dying so easily. It's worth watching simply for the fact that it doesn't cop to what's been done before.
What really makes the multiple surprises of "The Deep Blue Sea" work so well is the poetically edited structure of the film, which soothingly introduces Hester's dilemma in an opening prologue that makes one wonder if the entire film will hold up like this. Needless to say it doesn't, but with good reason. For example, we'd like to get to know these characters we're going to be so occupied with for the rest of the film. The film's structure does, however, give enough uncertainty to the timeline of events that you find yourself surprised by what led to the suicide note in the first place. From there on Davies doesn't attempt to put things happily back in their place. When something horrible happens, there are lasting consequences.
And all of this without even mentioning the film's romantic properties, between Hess and Tom Hiddleston's charmingly enthusiastic Freddie Page. The post-war landscape is a time of simultaneous honor and emptiness. Freddie rather symbolically represents the easygoing gung-ho attitude of people around that time, but also the emptiness at not having such adventure his life anymore. The relationship between Hess and Freddie is mutually strained, and they have an absolute awareness of that fact. It seems almost destined for collapse, despite Hess' absolute need to keep it together. The film's initial event is what starts knocking down the domino's, and from there on it is fireworks.
Hiddleston is such an explosive performer, positively bursting with expression and energy, wherever such is demanded. He makes the conflict of the film's second and third acts so devastating to watch unfold, but also holds it together with a bedrock of empathy and heartbreak. The only thing he has to contest with is Rachel Weisz, who is such an magnificent dial of repressed emotion. Weisz constantly keeps what's she's feeling just under the surface, not so much that people don't see what she's really feeling. She's absolutely fine with keeping her feelings to herself, and when she isn't able to, that's when things really come undone. Her expression of impending heartache is what keeps you wishing for a positive reconciliation.
It's worth congratulating Terrence Davies for not copping out to give her one, and in fact he's able to keep things on track without bending to stuffy period inclinations. He's much more interested in giving the film a fluid and ethereal visual life, and it evokes a rather solemn feeling very appropriate to the time. But again, it very much is like reading a poem. It's rather lovely and nice, but one amongst many others. If it doesn't distinguish itself, that's no horrible thing. To make a sappy parallel between this and the similarly titled Samuel L. Jackson thriller, there is a shark, and it's Hester's heart.