Sometimes stage plays make it to the movies very well, other times not. Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 play, of love and love-lost between three people in London after the years of war doesn’t,  in Terrence Davies 2012 adaption, starring Rachel WeiszTom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale. Or, perhaps it works just fine for those close enough to a personal recollection of the bitterness and ache of love in desperation and love unrequited. For those of us somewhat removed the film fails to recreate the thrill or the traumas.

Set in 1952 England, Hester Collyer (Weisz) has been married to Sir William Collyer (Beale) since, it seems, the years of the blitz. Some months prior to the story she has fallen in-lust with a young devil-may-care former RAF pilot, Freddie Page (Hiddleston) — for whom the world stopped, as a friend says, in 1940. Unfortunately for Hester, Freddie’s devil-may-careness extends to her. She is physically desperate for him; he is repulsed, after the initial flame,  by her need. Her husband, 20-30 years older (?) than she,  is devoted to her, but with hints of a British mama’s boy, cannot compete, either with anger, with tenderness or pleading for the return of the relationship they once shared.

Shot in muted browns and shadowy silhouettes with only a few light-filled frames, beginning with a suicide attempt that seems at first to be by unlit gas and turns out to be an overdose of pills, and composed through a series of back-flashes that are much like a Braque painting the lovers have an explosive argument about in the silent rooms of a museum, we are left puzzled and discomfited. Why did Hester ever marry Sir William? How long have they been married? What was it like? Since she is married, how is it that Hester is in a bar with a girlfriend [in 1952] the night she meets Freddie?  Why is the girlfriend not more present as the couple begins to fracture?

Frankly, for all I was happy to anticipate seeing Rachel Weisz again I felt almost entirely unsympathetic to her character. Bitchy to her mother-in-law, and not very convincingly in-lust with Freddie, perfectly helpless with despair and unable to find a friend to talk to or work to do.  Don’t get me wrong, her acting is a bravura performance, at least in the greatly emotional parts, of which there are plenty.  It is difficult to imagine someone acting the wretchedness of the closing scene, and yet she does it, convincingly.  The problem is there is just too much missing and of what is there, too much.  Though we know her father was a minister and she likely grew up sheltered, we don’t know enough, from within the film, to explain her behavior; we see or hear nothing of her growing up–unlike the original play.  In order to explain her behavior we have to imagine from life outside the movies.

Neither do we know a lot about Freddie, a type of which I’m not fond of anyway — loud, obnoxiously full of himself, unable to reflect on the trials and complexities of life, or leaven his inattention with tenderness.  His character didn’t improve things for me. He was neither amusing nor beguiling.  Even as she sees him for the first time, clowning with a friend, we sense no warmth in his flirtation.  There is no pillow talk, no exchange of mutual histories.  We see a fierce argument over culture and lack of culture and guess there were many before it, but we don’t know.  We see his misbehavior, but little of why she is attracted to him, aside from a scene or two of shapely shoulders and twining thighs.

As the lovers separate for good, Freddie tears up and says he loves her.  Why was his behavior towards her in awfully memorable scenes, so cruel, with not the smallest sign of such love? Her attempt at suicide brings fury instead of a dozen other emotions it might more properly elicit.

What we do have, is over done.  The use of Samual Barber’s Opus for Violin and Orchestra overwhelms many scenes, including the opening suicide attempt.  Really, I squirmed, she is dying, do we need all those violins at such volume?  As a friend says, if you notice the music in a movie it’s too much.

I think my sense of this disappointment may have to do with its origins on the stage.  Overstatement, largeness of emotion, has to be projected from a stage.  Without it there is no life.  Even whispers have to be “shouted.”  So, even when it seems like such a “conversation” couldn’t happen in a living room, since it’s on the stage we  factor in the louder voices, and are pulled into the make-believe.  With a camera fifteen inches from the face, that projection has to be throttled back.  Like sports announcers on the radio, excitement has to be conveyed but without actual shouting.  When the camera is lingering so close, the images filling the screen, we are drawn into an intimacy we seldom experience, except with our loved ones in the real world. When a stage voice projection sneaks into this something seems to be rattling around in the frame.

I felt this also in some of the dialog.  Stage dialog has to be, and Rattigan’s is, clipped and chiseled.  Watching a stage-play we don’t  get all the visual cues of a movie.  Words carry much of the burden.  Movies, as it seems to me, allow more casual dialog; they want  to be be closer to life where language is slurred, tapered off, interrupting, not precisely begun and ended.  Several times during the movie I thought –‘oh, straight from the stage.’  As a student of language might have it, in the wrong register.

And will someone please explain the closing shot to me — the bereft Hester, looking out the window through which the camera first took us to witness her lying down to die, but now apparently happy, released as it were, and then a long traveling shot to stop at the edge of the remains of a war-time burned out house.

It would be great to see Anatole Litvak’s 1955 version, with Vivien Leigh in the role of Hester.  Can’t find it on-line yet… or, of course, the original play which as I hear was about an explosive love affair between two men…