Meet a few of the boarders at the Beauregard Hotel: a retired major, a widow and her repressed daughter, Sybil, an American on the run from a disastrous marriage, the down-to-earth proprietress. It's a group with little in common, except secret fears and longings--and loneliness.
But they've managed to form an undemanding little world at the British seaside resort, living with the physical closeness of family yet eating at "Separate Tables."
The movie is sheer soap opera, but fine writing by Terence Rattigan (upon whose play it is based) gives the melodrama meaning. And a cast sure to make any movie lover swoon (David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth and Wendy Hiller) takes the poignancy to levels that are sometimes painful to watch.
While each character has his own drama, the story is at its best when it focuses on the major (Niven).
Niven won an Oscar for his portrayal of a man who has reinvented himself into an image he thinks more worthy of respect and love. But both elude him. Only his friendship with the equally shy Sybil (Kerr, made more dowdy than her fans would think possible) seems to offer hope.
But that appears lost when his lies and his pathetic sexual peccadilloes come to light. He is not a war hero; he is not even a major. And his relationships with women are limited to sneaking feels in movie houses.
"It has to be the dark, you see, and only with strangers," he explains to Sybil in a heartbreaking confession.
Lancaster's character, meanwhile, is caught in an emotional storm when his ex-wife (Hayworth) walks through the door and announces she wants him back.
But he has found peace with the hotel's proprietress, played by Hiller, the movie's second Oscar winner. It isn't long, though, before he has to face the fact that he might be willing to trade this peace for the woman whose sexual games once led him to violence.
In the end, life simply can't be kept at bay, and the residents of the Beauregard realize choices and connections have to be made.
"Separate Tables" (1958), directed by Delbert Mann. 98 minutes. Not rated.