In an interview with the director, Davies says that Hester, the tragic wife who leaves her husband for the dashing former RAF pilot, is a woman who’s discovered sex late in life and that this then shapes the whole way she sees the world. Which kinds of takes us to the nub of why, for all its worthiness, the film adaptation of Rattigan’s brooding post-war drama doesn’t really convince. After one baroque camera movement in the opening five minutes, there’s no sex at all and precious little sexual tension. For all the fact that Hiddlestone and Weisz look the part, there’s something completely unconvincing in the theory that she’s going to throw her life away for him, and that when she does so he’s going to behave like such a twat.
This isn’t to knock their acting. It’s their performances and that of Russell Beale as the wronged husband that keep the film on some kind of an even keel. Rather, there’s something stately, or perhaps turgid, in the direction and the screenplay, which fails to complement a steamy drama of late-released passion, albeit passion with a stiff upper lip. Davies’ signature moments are the rather beautiful tracking shots of stoic Londoners singing in the underground during the Blitz, or in the post-war pubs. These add a sense of style to proceedings. But they also feel like they rob the rest of the film of any energy. During these scenes and the melodramatic, suicide-watch opening shot, the camera is given license to roam. But through the rest of the film it’s a case of static shots of talking heads as Rattigan’s words are faithfully reproduced. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t take us any deeper into the world than the play does. The advantage of cinema over theatre in story-telling terms is that it can reveal detail which theatre cannot. How the lovers co-exist, in bed and out. What the inside of Hester’s mind looks like, as she contemplates suicide. Davies’ version of the play doesn’t engage with any of this.
Instead we are offered a curiously sexless story full of melodramatic moments. A few years ago I saw a version of The Winslow Boy at Salisbury. I’d never seen the attraction of Rattigan, but the effortlessly staged production helped me to understand what all the fuss is about. He’s an author who really understands stagecraft, and under the crust of their English skins are real people responding to real situations. Based on this, it seems a pity that Davies’ film fails to de-fifty-fy or de-Anglicise these tragic characters. The other film it brings to mind is Brief Encounter. The world has moved on since that film was made, so that now it and its characters’ sensibilities have the feel of a museum piece; but this fails to take into account that the reason for its effectiveness is that in their day, Howard and Johnson were contemporary figures in a modern world. The truth of the situation their characters are living through shines through and the film has become a classic. Davies seems keen to suggest that the emotional truths of Hester’s despair are real, but his reverential approach to Rattigan’s text sucks the life out of her story and leaves the audience perhaps impressed, but ultimately unmoved.