We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
Hey teachers, leave those kids alone!
— Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”
The premise of Wetherby is deceptively simple. A young man shows up on the doorstep of a middle-aged schoolteacher who is having a dinner party, and is invited to attend. The next day, the young man returns, sits in the kitchen, and shoots himself in the head. In writer/director David Hare’s written “Director’s Introduction” (with an essay by film scholar Brian McFarlane, the DVD’s only extras), Hare says, “Wetherby is about English repression and how bad we are at expressing our feelings, the disastrous consequences of bottling up our feelings and the part-emotional landscape that is England.” What he omits here is the film’s suggestion that higher education anesthetizes one from genuine experiences.
Schoolteacher Jean Travers (Vanessa Redgrave), in whose home John Morgan (Tom McInnery) kills himself, is asked by a student early in the film about the value of continuing with her studies. Jean tries in vain to justify higher education, offering that it fulfills “potential,” but can’t contradict the fact that studies won’t guarantee her student a future. The subject comes up again as we learn Jean’s background. During World War II, she had a passionate affair with a local boy who was going to be shipped off to battle. His parents scotched his plans to marry her when she expressed a desire to continue her education rather than stay at home and wait for her husband to return from the war. She doesn’t stop him from leaving for war, and her inaction leads to his murder overseas, in a gambling game gone bad.
Even if education doesn’t yield a profitable career, for Jean, the emotional costs are even greater: 30 years later, she’s still alone and fearful of being hurt. Despite her education — or perhaps because of her focus on it — she hasn’t learned to cope with her loss, to be open to another relationship. All of this comes full circle when she meets John. At dinner the night before he shoots himself, he responds to his companions’ verbal sparring: “I only know goodness and anger and revenge and evil and desire.”
Only 25, John is also alone, recovering (as we learn in flashbacks) from a failed affair with a fellow student. Though he seeks wisdom from the adults at dinner, he only sees their unhappiness. Stanley (Ian Holm) spends the evening drunk, while his wife Marcia (Judi Dench) pretends not to notice. As John sees his future embodied by his miserable elders, he ends his life, symbolically, in the kitchen where he lost all hope.
This is all heady stuff, but Hare delivers this film with measured, methodical and subtle direction. For the DVD’s “Introduction,” Hare notes: “With a film as personal as Wetherby… its success or failure [relies] on its tone.” He does focus on tone, but through stagy characters who spew a sort of philosophy. Crippled by their past, and unable to function in the present, they represent what Hare calls “the part-emotional landscape that is England.”
It is somewhat hard to believe that Wetherby is a microcosm of English society as a whole. Hare’s sweeping generalization of the English people is a cynical assertion at best. Though the film itself is superbly delivered, there is a feeling of emptiness that follows. Hare succeeds in establishing the fragile emotional states of his characters, but fails in making them worth caring about. Though they struggle to come to an understanding of their feelings, the viewer never truly cares if they find their way out of their emotional quagmire. Wetherby‘s strength lies in its honesty. Emotional scars may last a lifetime, and though we may never recover from them, accepting them is the first step to moving on.