Reel Women: A Love Unmatched in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’
No, this isn’t a film in which Samuel L. Jackson poignantly understands unrequited love perceived as female psychosis via the metaphor of a shark. This is Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea,’ starring Rachel Weisz as Hester, a woman with a name that, too obviously, serves as a thinly-veiled allusion to ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
‘The Deep Blue Sea’ takes place “around 1950,” and as such, women are much more stifled. The film opens with Hester attempting to commit suicide with the gas from her furnace and a handful of pills, pulling a Sylvia Plath years ahead of convention. This day, in this apartment, frames our story as told via dialogue between Hester and the men around her, and the minimal use of flashbacks: Hester was stuck in a marriage to an older man she didn’t love, but then she met Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a young, clever, and woefully self-involved cad.
Hester falls in love with Freddie and moves into an apartment, but her husband refuses to grant her a divorce. This breeds the perfect arrangement for repressed feminism, but we aren’t to side with Hester so effortlessly. Davies, working from his own screenplay based on the play by Terence Rattigan, chooses to allow the characters to truly speak through the dialogue with nuances and tics, and all the agonizing suggestion of silence.
It’s here that we see how complex Hester Collyer truly is: an exhalation of smoke out the window is as telling as it is captivating; she is seductive in her complication, like quicksand — Freddie perceives her as something safe and calm, but when he tries to traverse her he is sucked down slowly. The more he struggles to free himself, the more stuck he becomes.
Hester is at once powerful and powerless with Freddie; when they fight she begs him to come home where she promises that she won’t speak or even touch him unless he wants her to — it’s both heart-achingly desperate and reprehensible at the same time. This statement implies that with just a few phrases and reassurances, Freddie will cave to Hester’s needs, but the idea that she should have to go to such lengths to publicly humiliate herself by begging him to come home in front of a bar is almost too embarrassing to watch.
It’s impossible to reduce Hester down to a strong vs. weak argument; given the era we are more wont to forgive her desperate pandering, but the beauty of ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ is that the story feels timeless. Hester is in love with Freddie, but he doesn’t love her, or at least, he maintains, not the way she loves him. He cares for her, but he doesn’t feel the all-consuming, borderline obsessive love that Hester feels for him. This story is timelessly relatable.
Could Freddie ever love Hester as much as she loves him? Would it matter? Setting aside the logical nightmare that is measuring one person’s love against another’s, if Freddie professed that he did love Hester in much the same way she loves him, would she feel any better, or would she always feel that she loved him just a bit more? A bit harder? More desperately?
In ‘Invisible Monsters’ Chuck Palahniuk writes, “The one you love and the one who loves you are never, ever the same person.” There’s truth to this in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ as Hester’s husband loves her unrelentingly and she loves Freddie in turn. But what the film explores more deeply is the idea that there is always one person in a relationship who loves more. It’s not a question of whether the love exists, it’s the ratio.
That said, Hester isn’t necessarily a weak representation of womanhood, but a weak representation of humanity. She is us at our most faulty; possessed by her love for someone who, in her mind, can never return that love. Her desperate pleas and bargaining do not belie a woman subservient to man, but a person so desperate to cling to this other person she loves that she will do or say anything to keep them.
And yet, whether his love can measure up to her own — her perception here is key — is of no consequence because she believes it doesn’t, and still she stays with him. It’s breaking her heart, driving her to suicide, but she holds on to the love she has for Freddie and she hopes. It’s not willful ignorance, it’s desperate, blind hope.
Aside from ‘The Scarlet Letter’ allusion — an adulterous woman, sure — there is another blatant symbol: in the apartment that Hester shares with Freddie, their wallpaper is a sickly yellow floral that calls to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ a short story written by Gilman as a reaction to her own therapy but co-oped by the feminist movement as a symbol for their own repression. In the story, a woman in the throes of postpartum depression is imprisoned in a room by her husband, the walls of which are covered in peeling yellow wallpaper. She slowly loses her grasp on reality and believes another woman is living in the wallpaper, so she tries to help her get out. In the end, she becomes the woman in the wallpaper.
‘The Deep Blue Sea’ ruminates on ideas of love, unrequited and unmatched, but it also tenderly addresses the idea of feminine emotion as psychosis — when her love is rejected and her feelings are trapped in a room (whether real or subjective), the chemical reactions of Hester’s psyche vary; at her worst she must end herself and her suffering, and at her best she crumples in on herself and feels the miserable weight of it all — but at least she’s alive to feel it.