Film Review: Separate Tables

I always derive great pleasure from watching a well-adapted film version of a stage play. I think it’s because fundamentally what makes a good story is its characters and a stage play is, in essence, nothing more than a study of its characters. Of course, there’s usually a plot of some kind that unfolds, twists and turns and events that occur to affect the behaviour of those in the tale and thereby expose more about them as people to us, the audience. For me, it always lays bare the artists’ talents in the writing and the performing departments because there’s no whizz-bang action and explosions to boggle our minds or death-defying stunts to draw our attention away from the human element of the tale. It really is basic storytelling, which some would argue is the purest kind.

Usually, a theatre audience will retain a certain detachment from the performance it watches, never really giving in to the world of make-believe on the stage, never completely forgetting that it is enjoying (or not) a group of performers. By contrast, the cinema audience gets drawn into the world on screen (assuming the director knows what he’s doing), the camera lens acting as its eye. Yes, we know the camera is mounted on a dolly which is being pushed by a Grip along a New York sidewalk but when it comes to watching the end product we forget this, we are there in the Big Apple jostling through the crowds on East 42nd Street and on into Grand Central Station. A scream comes from behind and the camera swivels around to investigate saving us in our seats the effort of looking over our shoulders. For all intents and purposes, we are the camera lens and we can get as close up and personal to the most intimate of moments between characters or we can stand on the edge of a bluff and behold the most spectacular of vistas below our feet. We’re not so much watching it as witnessing it. Think about it. It’s quite magical.

That’s why a well-filmed stage play can be so rewarding. There’s nothing to distract you from the humanity of the story. There’s no bustling sidewalks or majestic panoramas to enjoy. The entire story is expressed through dialogue and body language and little else. Yes, the camera (our eye) now has the freedom to move around the room, to close in on an object or a facial expression or some other detail but more often than not, there’s still a sense of confinement, of being indoors and away from the rest of the world. And in the case of Separate Tables this confinement is the ground floor of a small hotel in Bournemouth, a seaside resort on the south coast of England.

Based on two one-act plays by Terrence Rattigan (Table by the Window and Table Number Seven), Rattigan himself stitched them together and added a few characters to hide the seam. The film was directed by Delbert Mann who had, three years earlier in 1955, won the Academy Award for his romantic drama Marty, a film which also won Ernest Borgnine the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. No question that the guy clearly knew what he was doing then.

Separate Tables boasts an all-star cast with David Niven, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster and Wendy Hiller – two of whom would go on to win Oscars for their performances.  Niven plays Major Pollock, a spiffing, moustachioed war veteran who happens to be hiding a shameful secret. Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr), is a meek and rather dour spinster suffocating under the firm control of her Victorian mother (Gladys Cooper) who also appears to be the hotel’s resident matriarch. The sober hotel owner Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) is in love with a long-term resident, the alcoholic John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster), who in turn gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth). The plot lines of these five individuals are woven together with a deft subtlety that is absolute poetry. Their characters start to evolve as soon as the film begins but it’s not until the sudden discovery of Major Pollock’s awful secret, a revelation that divides and illuminates at the same time, that we really get to see what these people are made of.

Niven’s performance is possibly one of the best of his distinguished career and garnered him his only Oscar. His Major Pollock is all bluff and twitter as he regales boorish tales of his time at Sandhurst Military Academy or during the North African campaign always with just a little too much zeal. It’s obvious from the get-go that he’s not all he seems and when his world does come crashing down, the contrast in his behaviour is extremely well-judged. Like-wise, Lancaster’s performance is spot on and the arrival of his ex-wife (Hayworth at first purring glamour and controlled serenity but then revealing pain and loneliness) claiming that they can’t live without each other gives him the opportunity to show how vulnerable and doomed his character is. Deborah Kerr, playing very much against type, is shy and awkward and again conveys a loneliness that seems to be very much prevalent in most of the characters here. Indeed, Major Pollock, having just been told by Sibyl that they know all about him and his secret, tells her that they are really much alike in as much as they are both afraid of life. She’s utterly reviled by Pollock’s guilt but totally devastated too because she was secretly in love with the old fellow. Finally, Wendy Hiller who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the proprietress does a great job of keeping a level-headed perspective on the gossip and bigotry that affects her guest as well as coming to terms with the fact that the man she loves still loves his ex-wife. She’s without doubt the most sane person under her roof. Without giving too much away, the final scene of this film is simply perfect – at first excruciating in its uncomfortableness but then extremely moving. Bottom line, a classic drama that’s all about great writing and stellar acting. Highly recommended.