Separate Tables, 1958. 9/10

Very unusual slice-of-life drama. As many other viewers have noted, I see this as a study of loneliness and aloneness. The conceit of the ‘separate tables’ not only is an apt metaphor for the distances between the couples and groups in the seaside hotel, but also a literal prop showing each character (or pair) in their own spot, like islands. The cast is an amazing collection of talent. Unexpectedly, instead of trampling on each other’s feet, they complement each other with their idiosyncratic ways.

It’s true that this is an assortment of types: Deborah Kerr as the mousey repressed daughter of her domineering mother Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper), Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth as the divorced couple John and Ann, no longer young nor innocent of life and love, and David Niven as the pathetic Major. His less than-subtle predatory nature becomes the focus of Railton-Bell’s self-righteous campaign to oust him from the hotel. The up-and-coming generation is well-represented by the lovers Charles and Jean (Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton). They’re very good together, but it seems they’re commitment-phobic.

Interestingly, Sibyll’s only bridge to the outside world is the phony Major. It only weakens her standing with her ‘mummy’ that her doting on him is about as ludicrous as ‘mummy’s’ made out to be. “What makes me so different than the others?!” She blurts out, venting her rage on him for his behavior. She does realize that they share an outsider status (his being gay not being too acceptable in the 1950s). Ann genuinely feels sorry for Sibyll; as catty as she is with her ex, she’s capable of considerable empathy. John, for his part, is sympathetic to the Major; he tries to make light of the guy’s arrest. Nonetheless, as Pat (Wendy Hiller) the proprietoress notes, Ann and John “tear themselves, and then each other apart.” One complicating factor early on is Pat and John’s liking for each other.

Ironically, as intertwined as these people are, they’re all still essentially lonely. In an odd way, they also support each other. It’s touching that everyone except Mrs. Railton-Bell makes an effort to give the Major a welcoming, comfortable greeting the day he’s scheduled to leave. Due to this spontaneous gesture, and having been reassured that he’s not actually being kicked out, he stays. It’s true that the ending is a bit unexpected, and abrupt. And, implicitly, all of the relationships seem to mend in various ways. One way to look at what seems like a coincidence of happy outcomes is that these people have all suffered enough–we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Highly recommended as an entertaining and romantic character study. 9/10.

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