Wetherby examines psychological and moral issues that are of interest to me, and it does so in a way that acknowledges their complexity and ambiguity. Yet it never drew me in more than modestly.
One reason is that it didn’t feel realistic to me. I don’t mean by that that it contains supernatural or surrealistic elements (there are no aliens with anti-gravity devices, no dream or hallucinogenic drug sequences). It’s unrealistic in the sense of feeling entirely too theatrical (not surprising, since it was written and directed by playwright David Hare). People declaim rather than just speak, meaningful glances abound, and repressed emotions are provoked and come to the surface, cryptically, in too-frequent tense confrontations (typically accompanied by dramatic violin music).
I don’t mean to imply that this style is unintentional, that this was a failed attempt to make a more realistic movie about people I could more easily imagine meeting in real life. I’m sure, to the contrary, that the theatrical style was a conscious choice. I’m just saying that, all else being equal, a movie with that style is less likely to connect with me than a movie with similar content that feels more realistic, and that therefore this style is likely a partial explanation for why Wetherby’s appeal to me wasn’t greater.
Jean Travers (Vanessa Redgrave) is a middle-aged, unmarried British schoolteacher. Early in the movie, she hosts a small dinner party. One of the attendees is a graduate student named John Morgan.
It turns out that he is a total stranger to everyone there, but he arranges his arrival so that Travers assumes he was brought by other guests, and everyone else assumes he must be someone Travers knows. His secret is not revealed until he returns to Travers’s home the next morning and tells her. (It seems really unlikely, by the way, that he could have pulled this off, especially since there are only about half a dozen people in attendance at the dinner party, but never mind.) He then proceeds to take out a gun and commit suicide in front of her.
The rest of the film jumps around chronologically, from flashbacks as far back as when Travers was a young woman getting engaged to a military fellow about to go overseas, to the dinner party and more details on what really happened there, to developments in the present.
Much of it relates to the mystery of why Morgan killed himself, and why he chose to do so where and how he did. But at times that feels more like a MacGuffin, with the film really being more of an examination of the various psychological limits and damage of its characters, especially Travers.
People’s brief interactions with Morgan, especially in the context of their then witnessing or learning of his death, cause them much rumination on their own lives, their own loneliness, their own potential reasons for giving up.
Travers herself is certainly so affected by Morgan and his death. An investigating cop comes to be obsessed with the case and with Travers—not in the straightforward sense of suspecting foul play or anything like that, but more what it all means psychologically. A peculiar, somewhat angry, defiant girl shows up on Travers’s doorstep, and pretty much moves in for a short period, which Travers passively and indecisively allows, because the girl has a connection to Morgan and she wants to learn more about him from her, or just to be in the company of someone who was also a part of his life. (Evidently the girl dated him briefly, and then he became obsessed with her—I’m not sure if in a sad, lovestruck way, or a creepy stalker way.)
There’s never some big “reveal”; we just accumulate modest bits of information about the lives of these characters, their regrets, their disappointments, etc.
At times they have a sense that they are trapped, that their lives and experiences up to now limit their options moving forward—not just in a practical sense, but in the sense of their emotional selves and what kind of person they can be—in a way that can be depressing.
Wetherby ends with Travers and a friend chatting about one of her students who has just dropped out of school and run away to London. Though it’s a choice they understand to be imprudent, they have mixed feelings about it. “Good luck to her” they agree, and then they toast all those who “escape,” I think the idea being that sometimes you just have to break away from your life as it has been constituted so far, to change your habits, to go against convention and all the advice you receive, which is something that becomes much more difficult the older you get and the more entrenched you become in whatever life you happen to have, regardless of how unsatisfying it is.