The film, like the play, is set during a day, after Hester Collyer (Leigh) is found after a failed suicide attempt. Ten months before the play starts, she abandoned her husband for Freddie, a younger man, and now is confronted with the eminent ending of that relationship as well.
The play is compelling and does wonders with the claustrophobia of the space, and the compression of time, but is designed as a play. A cinematographic adaptation will never be easy – you keep the play closed, and it’s not very film-like; or you open it up, which can tear the play’s fabric apart. The TV adaptation with Penelope Wilton and Colin Firth falls in the first category, while the 2011 film with Rachel Weisz went in the second (or at least the 20 minutes or so, I lasted watching it). However, this film fared better, partly because Rattigan wrote it himself. So instead of fabricating a whole story of an unhappy marriage (as in the 2011 version, which created a horrible mother in law), he kept the flashbacks to key moments during Hester’s affair, and all prior her leaving husband. He also added/developed a few supporting characters, although I wasn’t entirely convinced he pulled it off.
More disappointingly, at least to me, the film lacked the lust between the characters that I saw in the 2008 revival. This is a key plot point. After all, Hester doesn’t run away with Freddie for a companionship of minds. Repressed all her life, she finally found a way to escape her social chains. I understand that censorship was tighter on film (see the moralising tagline), this absence makes the affair more doomed and less understandable that it should be.
The contemporary reviews praised Kenneth More for his portrayal of Freddie. I wasn’t particularly impressed. I assume his casting was due to having originated the part on stage. But Freddie is supposed to be good looking, or at least extremely charming (Colin Firth was a much better cast). More was too old, lacking on screen the sex appeal he might have projected on stage.
On the other hand, Leigh was very good, much better than I expected. I liked the control in her voice (so unlike Blanche DuBois, much closer to her younger self), and the occasional fire she allowed her character to release. There was a close-up towards the end that Litvak might have borrowed from “Gone with the Wind” and felt a bit out of place.