Terence Davies’ first non-documentary work since House of Mirth (2000) is a spare and emotionally fragile work that contains magnificent pacing, inspired visuals, and a devastating performance from Rachel Weisz who is in nearly every scene in the film and commands your attention the entire way. It’s one of the best films of 2011 (or 2012 depending on release dates and locations). Davies here works within a framework of the classic melodramas and in a certain sense, I was reminded of Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) except that this story somewhat picks up where Brief Encounter leaves off. Here, the female protagonist pursues and consummates the affair and is left to deal with the consequences. This is a film that may bore or exasperate some, but for fans of love stories or melodramas, it doesn’t get better than this.
What I find so thoroughly engaging about this film, is its mature and its deeply introspective approach to the subject matter. As the audience we are trusted to find our way through Hester’s feelings. Yes it is obvious that she is distraught and depressed. But why? As the film unfolds, it is clear that this is a work of great character examination. It appears that Hester married for safety and comfort, but when she met Freddie, she found sexual and emotional exhilaration. When she left her husband for her lover, she found herself torn between guilt and passion…between shame and love. This produced in her a deep rooted sense of self-loathing and self-hatred, so that she remained balanced on the precipice of an emotional abyss. She gets along, but if there is any negative emotional setbacks in her relationship, she takes it extremely hard. What is so fascinating is that Hester does not avoid emotional drama. She is almost drawn to it as a way of feeling SOMETHING. When Freddie picks up her suicide note, she does not try to tear it away from him. She wants him to read it. She wants him to know her pain and wants to be put in that emotional state of turmoil and bring him into it. She also turns away her husband even though he seems to still care for her and is willing to take her back to comfort and safety. She denies him and instead prefers to stay in her perpetual state of melancholy, depression, and suicidal fantasies. Like I said though, this film is deeply introspective, and outside of a few outbursts, is a rather quiet, but penetrating work.
Camerawork by Florian Hoffmeister allows a hazy glow to overtake the viewer. The film is filtered so that nothing is quite in extreme focus and we are awash in cigarette smoke and dark rooms and shadows. Davies lets us wallow in the mise-en-scene and the pace is very slow and deliberate, which allows a sense of importance to set in even though the film is only 98 minutes. Punctuating the film with feeling is a violin concerto piece by Samuel Barber, which gives the film a sense of beautiful desperation. It’s a wonderful piece of music. Foremost, though, is the performance by Rachel Weisz. She makes us believe that this woman is willing to be absolutely miserable, perhaps even crave her turmoil, all for the sake of love. Yes she’s in love…..and it’s killing her. Weisz is tremendous in moments of emotional outpouring, and also in moments of pensive reservation. There is an extended scene where she stands at her window, smoking a cigarette. You can feel her desperate need to be lost in her own mind. Weisz does not turn this into a pity party. We don’t feel sorry for her but instead regard her with fascination. How far will this woman go to be continually humiliated and destroyed? This film intensely examines the depth of her emotional state. It is a fantastic work.