The appropriately named Hester (Rachel Weisz) is a doomed romance addict, brazenly cheating on her spouse. And in a brief, unhappy conversation with her matronly, kerchief-wrapped landlady, Hester learns everything the older woman knows about love: that most of what people say about it is "rubbish" and that the real thing involves "wiping [your decades-long husband's] ass" and changing the sheets after the elderly and weakened object of your longstanding affection has wet the bed.
She’s right, of course. And audience members with their wits about them will understand it as the first moment of real talk anyone sees fit to toss in the direction of the love-blinded Hester. But it's not like you can really blame her for indulging in a misguided, adulterous relationship. She’s female in post-World War II England, a time just before modern feminism when women were still expected to behave themselves, adjust their expectations and make do with life as men told them how to live it. This can only have sucked.
But as Hester approaches middle age, she makes the decision to lodge herself between two unwinnable situations. In one corner she's got an arid marriage to a respectable, passionless judge (Simon Russell Beale) who refuses to grant her a divorce, and in the other a hot-then-cold affair with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former Royal Air Force pilot whose presence more or less embodies the concept of "dashing." One man makes her feel dead inside and one man gives her lots of hot sex but little else. Hester was born too soon to have her life specifically mirror a Smiths song, but she’s “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” about 35 years early on the request. And because it’s 1950, she isn’t getting much in the way of sympathy from anyone. This means, of course, that the film opens with her failed suicide attempt.
And why? Well, Freddie blew off her birthday. And why did he do that? No real reason. He just did. He's the kind of glory-days-of-yesterday World War II hero who drinks more than his share of pints 'round the pub and who still thinks highly enough of himself that ignoring the staggeringly beautiful Hester feels like a reasonable option; meanwhile, she's just fed up enough with restrictions that throwing herself heart-first into the unknown seems like a fine idea, too. And because this is a Terence Davies film, every person on screen is trapped in an uptight British haze of polite behavior and seething rage over their own self-and-society-made circumstances. They live in a cozy, glowing, woolen prison of tea and "guarded enthusiasm" (words of advice on how to approach life from Hester's husband's mean old mother) so, it's no surprise when they quietly -- very, very, very quietly -- rebel.
You'll ache watching Weisz's vulnerable, wounded performance as a woman trying to shake off the conventions of the past and dive into a bolder future, actions that thematically walk hand in hand with post-war London digging itself out of the ruins and rearranging itself for the next decade, but you won't be able to get away from the nagging dread that none of it's going to work out for her, and that makes it all the more tragic. Contemporary art's master of the pointed aphorism, Jenny Holzer, once wrote, "Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid," and she was as right as that landlady. But even if she'd been around to tell these characters that same thing, they probably wouldn't have listened to her, either.