I watched a film awhile ago – Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a beautiful, melancholy play, and a beautiful melancholy film about a woman named Hester Collyer, who escapes a stifling marriage to have an affair with a damaged RAF pilot named Freddie Page.
Set in the years following WWII, the film, (and the play), examines a particular slice of cultural history through Hester’s emotional decent. She’s a beautiful woman with two choices – remain wedded to stifling traditions or deviate from accepted social norms. Neither is particularly promising as they are born out in the choice between a dry, unsatisfying marriage to a kind, older judge, or wildly sexual but emotionally fraught affair with a younger man.
There are a lot of things I like about this film. Visually, it’s a beautiful thing, full of saturated color and all the soft edges of an old Hollywood film. The acting is also first rate – Rachel Weisz is heart-breaking as Hester and Tom Hiddleston turns in a edgy, nuanced performance as Freddie Page. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details, and that’s true for this film.
Take a look at this short trailer, and keep your ear open to one of Freddie’s lines. It starts about 19 seconds in.
That line – “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met” – is the detail that stands out most to me in this film. That one line, and Hester’s silent response to it, tells viewers everything they need to know about what’s going to happen. Here’s what I mean.
Arguably, Hester’s defining characteristic is that she needs. She is driven by unfulfilled need, and her needs – for love, and respect, and fulfillment, and romance, and desire, and safety, and belonging, and etc. etc. etc. – run incredibly deep. Freddie, on the other hand, skates the surface of need. He cannot tolerate entanglements for reasons of his own.
So, while he can offer Hester, “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met”, what Hesters needs is “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I love you. Stay with me.” That need of hers is naked on her face, and as soon as you see her cling to the bon-bon Freddie’s offered, you know it’s going to go badly for them. There is too much distance between what Hester needs, and what Freddie can give.
And that’s why I love this film, even though it makes my stomach hurt. No one is at fault. They are just, fundamentally, not right for each other. Love and attraction are not enough. What breaks my heart is that nothing will ever be enough for Hester. Her needs went ignored for so long that there is a hole inside of her that cannot be filled. That’s why this film is a tragedy, and that’s why it’s so good.