Ironically it seems dated in its attitudes towards adultery- all stiff upper-lips- and yet the way the narrative is presented is quite clever and modern (director David Lean was also a film editor). We see a couple in a train station; the man puts his hand on the woman's shoulder but they are interrupted by the woman's gossiping busybody friend. These people are unfulfilled housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) and charming doctor Alec (Trevor Howard). What unfolds in flashback is a tale of either thwarted love or sordid semi-adultery.
The film is open to either interpretation and that's what makes it so compelling. It's also strangely plausible how their initial acquaintance escalates into a romance. The film has lots of wonderful little details, such as Laura's weekly visits to the cinema- the only distraction from a rather mundane routine. The films she watches are also significant; she passively and demurely watches raunchy tales of passion. These were the days of censorship so all the sexual repression has to be hidden in the film- even though it plays a large part in why the affair is so doomed. For all the melodramatic trappings and dialogue, it's a film that really does make a comment on society and human behaviour.
Johnson's acting style is very melodramatic- wide eyes and gloomy face- and yet it works. Modern minds would probably wonder why she's making such a fuss and why Laura and Alec can't just run off; despite the fact that the film makes the reasons very clear on a practical level. I'm sure adultery is a lot harder to conduct in real life than in films, in which these things never seem inconvenient. It's a refreshing anecdote to the old Hollywood cliche of love conquering all.
Another interesting thing that writer Noel Coward does is give Laura an ordinary husband. Fred (Cyril Raymond) is not at all violent; he's a bit dull in his love for crosswords, but he is genuinely a good husband. The implication is that he could be any husband and that anyone, however ordinary and seemingly passionless they may be, could be lured into an affair. Whether it is better to be 'ordinary' and live an unexciting life or to give into the feeling that there's something/someone better out there is a tension that runs throughout the film, and is never fully resolved. Howard's portrayal seems more opportunistic and predatory the more I watch it but he's charming enough to make a viewer feel that he does love Laura.
I suppose that in some senses the moral tone of the film is obvious, particularly from the ending, which is just lovely, and the melodramaticness of that is a drawback. But I like to view the melodrama as Laura filtering her life through rose-tinted Hollywood spectacles, where life is 'just like the movies'. And honestly, who hasn't dreamt about that once in a while? If you want to see feelings you've guiltily had but never admitted to, watch this- even if you don't think it's your thing.
Honestly, I'd literally stick you down and make you watch this if I could. It's that good.