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October 2010


cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, and Tim McInnerny

director: David Hare

99 minutes (15) 1985
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Park Circus DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Written and directed by the playwright David Hare (Plenty, Via Dolorosa, as well as the screenplay for 2008's The Reader), Wetherby is a gloriously inaccessible but beautifully written exploration of the desire to withdraw from life for fear of being harmed by it.

The access problems begin early on Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) hosts a dinner party for her friends. Barbed comments and drunken ramblings zing back and forth amidst the middle aged friends who all seem acutely aware that they do not know one of the diners. John Morgan (Tim McInnerny) is much younger than the others and he does not seem to know anyone at the party. When asked to weigh in on various issues he merely smiles and says that he can see both sides of the story. The only link he seems to have with anyone at the table is with the hostess Jean. A tangible sexual tension crackles between the two as John disappears into Jean's attic to fix an apparent leak in the roof. The next morning, John shows up at Jean's house, reveals that he did not actually know anyone at the party but simply waited to be let in with some other guests, and then pulls out a gun and blows his brains out. Who was this man? Why did he kill himself among strangers?

These questions form a neat hook, guiding us into Hare's complex and murky psychological underworld but they are not the film's primary concern. As the narrative skips around a whole host of different time frames, including Jean's youth (where she is played by Redgrave's real daughter Joely Richardson), we soon learn that Morgan was just a graduate student passing through town. His interest in Jean is revealed through an astonishing speech he gives about the primacy of words like 'desire' and 'passion' over words like 'neurosis' and 'paranoia' and his obsession with a pretty female student who appears to have no inner life whatsoever. What ultimately draws Morgan to Jean is her emotional emptiness.

Like the female student, Jean is entirely insulated from the emotional harshness of the world. However, while the student is insulated by virtue of a lack of emotional intelligence or interest in anything aside from mind-numbing 1980s' TV comedies, Jean is an intelligent woman who has simply decided to not feel anything. She is not lonely. She is not sad. She is not angry. She feels nothing at all. For a man obsessed with the primal power of ancient and pre-psychological passions and humours, such terrible blankness is mesmerising. Morgan's suicide is not an attack upon Jean or a self-reflexive act carried out before an audience but a gift. Like the Jesus of Christian myth, Morgan brings about his own death in the hope that Jean might live.

Beneath the mystery of Morgan's suicide lies a more profound question: why did Jean withdraw from the world of human emotions? Why did she kill the part of her that loves, grieves and howls into the black void of the world? Hare reveals Jean's back-story through a series of flashbacks set during the war. Jean is revealed to be an intelligent and sensual girl who, upon meeting a local airman, becomes acquainted with the power of sex and love to lift you high but also to drown you in misery. As time passes, the couple grow closer together despite events forcing them apart: the airman's parents do not approve of Jean studying while their son is off fighting. The airman is flying off to fight in Malaya. He will be gone a long time and may never come back. The airman dies after involving himself in someone else's stupid drunken squabble. In those moments we can see Jean changing. Her spirit and desire to love is casually crushed beneath the cruel circumstance that makes up the world.

What ultimately makes Wetherby inaccessible and yet - paradoxically - so compelling, is the fact that Jean's withdrawal from the emotional cut and thrust of the world is never completely comprehensible. This is not Claude Sautet's A Heart In Winter (1992): Daniel Auteuil does not calmly state that he could never love Tim McInnerny. Redgrave's character is not some dysfunctional tragedy; Jean's withdrawal from the world is incomprehensible and aggravating because she is a sympathetic character who is simply fucked up. Fucked up in a way that seems so easy to solve...

Indeed, as Wetherby's nested mysteries open themselves to us like flowers, we learn that John Morgan's suicide is actually comparatively easy to understand. For all of his aloofness and mysterious countenance, Morgan is human and one can understand his need to break through to first the female student and then to Jean. But Jean's withdrawal from the world is alienating and bizarre because she shows no obvious signs of unhappiness. She is not dead. She is not damaged. She has simply taken another path - a path whose apparent viability calls into question whether it is necessary for any of us to face the hardships of an emotionally engaged life.

Wetherby is a frustratingly impenetrable film because ultimately Jean is frustratingly impenetrable. She is the barrier. She is the mystery. She is the blockage. As one would expect from a piece written by David Hare, Wetherby's dialogue is not only emotionally and psychologically dense but also archly poetic. Consider Morgan's dinner table speech:

"Well, I don't know. I only know goodness... and anger... and revenge and evil and desire. These seem to me far better words than 'neurosis' and 'psychology' and 'paranoia'. These old words, these good old words have a sort of... conviction... which all this modern apparatus of language now lacks. We bury these words, these simple feelings. We bury them deep. And all the building over that constitutes this century will not wish these feelings away."

Herein lies the film's basic ethos: we are human and we feel. These feelings are carefully squared away by language and each new dialect and piece of jargon further fractures and normalises our feelings. Language pathologises us. It breaks us down. But why should we trust one state over another? Why is talk of 'goodness' and 'anger' more authentic than talk of 'psychology' and 'neurosis'? No reason. There is no reason. One conceptual grid is as good as another. We might prefer to talk of ourselves in terms of older words and see ourselves as real people with real feelings rather than future patients to be picked apart and diagnosed but when it comes to justifying our preferences in these matters we cannot gain traction because these preferences have no basis in either fact, morality or aesthetics.

When John Morgan speaks of some emotions having more 'conviction' than others he is trying to formulate why his mode of emotionally engaged being is superior to Jean's withdrawn one and words simply fail him... Words are beautiful. Words are powerful. But words do not work here. This is why Morgan has to kill himself. He knows that his preference is as irrational as his desire for a complete stranger to share it and this irrationality can only be overcome by a supremely irrational act: killing yourself in front of a complete stranger.

Visually speaking, Wetherby is surprisingly striking for what is ultimately a 1980s' British kitchen sink drama. Hare's non-linear narrative and multiple time-frames are threaded together in a defiantly discordant manner with our only guide as to when many scenes are taking place being a piece of machinery unceremoniously dumped in the scene's foreground: a train; a plane; a car; a washing machine. These pieces of technology not only serve to orient us within the story's fractured narrative but also to drive home the script's agile rejection of traditionally Freudian models of the self.

Indeed, Jean is emotionally dormant but she is not in any way displacing her emotions into other activities. Had she been displacing her need for love or sadness then maybe she would seem less alien to us. By filling the film's foreground with so much industrial machinery, Hare seems to be reminding us that we are not well-oiled emotional machines that pump emotional energy through pipes in easily predictable ways. We are mysterious entities.

Wetherby is an elegantly structured, fiercely intelligent and exquisitely written piece of British drama. It features an unimpeachable cast acting their socks off during a period in their careers when they still had the energy to actually perform. With its regional accents, dark psychological register and non-linear structure, Wetherby is profoundly reminiscent of such great works of British drama from the same period as Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986), and Pennies From Heaven (1978), but Hare is a less obligingly Freudian writer than Potter was and so fans of Potter may come to feel aggrieved by his intellectual evasiveness despite the numerous similarities between the two writers.

The review copy I saw contained no DVD extras and I found the sound quality to be somewhat uneven (very loud then very muffled then very loud again), but despite a less than full-throated DVD release, Wetherby is still very much worth looking into if you are a fan of serious and genuinely thought-provoking drama.

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