Don't pour the milk into the cup before the tea. Be respectful of those who deserve it; to everyone else, be civil. Don't put the shoes on the table because it's bad luck (silly me, I always thought you didn't put shoes on the table because that's disgusting). This is the stultifying world of social and moral codes in which The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies' adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1952 play, takes place. Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), like any good literary Hester, is married to an older man and has an ill-advised love affair. How ill-advised? Before we even place eyes on Hester, she's reading us a suicide note over the opening credits.
In the aftermath of her attempt, Davies overlaps flashbacks with present-day scenes. It's confusing in a good way, blurring cause and effect the way they blur in memory, reflecting the way emotions overlap and seem different in retrospect. As one character puts it, "anger fades and is replaced by regret."
Hester's marriage to the dull but well-off Sir William (Simon Russell Beale) breaks up so that she can pursue her relationship with the penurious Air Force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, who has never gotten over his experiences in World War II, has a terrifically complex inner life, but he's sublimated it in favor of being a simpleton. In what's almost a deal-breaker for Hester, he doesn't get Cubism, but he makes it up to her later with a winning pun about the Impressionists. When we see Hester sitting wide-eyed in the pub, watching Freddie—whose fun-loving side isn't attractive enough—she looks more like a small child than a woman passionately in love.
But maybe that's the idea. As Freddie says, Hester married the first man who asked her (William) and then flipped for the first guy who wooed her (Freddie). Did she have any choice? Everyone's emotional energy seems to be spent balancing his or her exasperation at rude behavior and social norms with a stiff sense of propriety. Even when the revelers in a crowded pub sing a love song together, every single one of them crooning in unison, no one seems to be having much fun. Hester doesn't have much reason to believe the universe is flush with opportunities for happiness.
Davies' camera makes the sadness feel pre-ordained, framing most of this in compositions that are both elegant and rigid, not giving his characters anywhere to go. He moves his camera often, but unlike another Terence (Malick), he's always sure to bring it to a stiff halt before the cut. The camera dollies around Hester in a semi-circle as she stands still, coming to rest with a bold, flat shot of her face, with tears forming in her eyes. Davies' cold remove seems appropriate for the characters on view: After all, these are people who end turbulent relationships by saying stuff like "Thanks for everything" and "Be safe."
Whenever this starts to feel a little dated, like we're watching people with a bygone manner of behavior in a period-piece fishbowl, Davies ties his characters' emotional distress to lingering trauma from the war. In these few well-chosen moments, he reminds us that we haven't escaped our bad behavior. We might care less now about whether the milk goes in before or after the tea, but the bigger tragedies seem to be timeless.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No lady, no cry."