Friday, December 14, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

Grade: 95 (A)

“Melodrama” is too often used as a pejorative for film nowadays. Sure, there are plenty of romantic films that take melodramatic turns out of nowhere or otherwise hit a tone of unintentional camp. But true melodrama is just as valuable as a genre as any other, as evidenced by the great work of William Wyler and Douglas Sirk. Like no film since Todd Haynes’ magnificent Far From Heaven, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea captures the appeal and the power of the melodrama, and it should be celebrated.

Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is the younger wife of judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Hester embarks on a impassioned affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome and charismatic former RAF pilot still struggling in the years since World War II, but her life is thrown into turmoil. Hester is caught between “the devil and the deep blue sea”, a passionate young man who can’t provide her love and stability and a stable older man without sexual passion.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Hiddleston giving one of his finest performances yet as the often thoughtless but sympathetic Freddie and acclaimed stage actor Beale hitting just the right mixture of care and restraint as William. It’s ultimately Weisz’ show, however, in what’s the best performance of her career (one nominated for a Golden Globe, hopefully soon for an Oscar). Hester leads a quiet life of desperation, surrounded by wealth and affection but still unhappy. When Hester takes what she wants, however, she’s thrown into emotionally devastating territory. Weisz kills all of the most emotionally charged scenes, but the quieter moments are even better. In one flashback during the bombing of London, writer-director Terence Davies pans alongside a group of people singing the Irish-standard “Molly Malone”, only to find Hester unable to join in, isolated among a crowd of people. Another scene involving a phone call between Hester and Freddie makes full use of Weisz’ expressive face as the camera slowly pushes in on her, showing her in all of her pain.

Davies sets the action around Hester’s unsuccessful suicide attempt early in the film, which then jumps throughout time, showing Hester’s constriction within her marriage, the highs of her relationship with Freddie, and the soul-crushing lows after the suicide attempt. Davies’ ingenious structure is complimented by the film’s soft-focus cinematography that simultaneously shows the beauty and the constraint in 1950s London. Davies understands that for a melodrama to work, one must show both the appeal of the era and the dissatisfaction of the central figure. It’s a touch that combines wistfulness with bitterness, and Davies captures that beautifully.

An early scene between Weisz, Beale, and Beale’s mother (played by Shakespearean actress Barbara Jefford) highlights Hester’s plight: in spite of all the beauty around her, Hester cannot find passion. The elder Mrs. Collyer’s reply: “Beware of passion, Hester. It leads to something ugly… guarded enthusiasm is safer”. It’s particularly telling following the devastating opening scene, as Davies shows Hester’s methodical suicide attempt and flashes back to a god’s-eye-view of Hester and Freddie making love: full of passion, but with incredible consequences. 

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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