Wetherby: a small town in England. A congenial dinner party in a rustic house. A mysterious stranger. Pinteresque dialogue. A pretentious movie.

David Hare's screen debut -- he wrote and directed this film -- comes as a disappointment after his provocative plays like "Plenty" and the soon-to-open-in-New York "The Map of the World."

Replete with portentous stares, people gazing pensively out of windows, and a ponderous sense of self-importance, "Wetherby" aims for the subtlety of inference but achieves only the weighty pretension of a cathedral organ thundering out dark -- and largely meaningless -- sounds of doom.

Jean Travers (Vanessa Redgrave, as tall and thoughtful as ever) has several friends over for a dinner of coq au vin. The next day one member of the gathering, John Morgan (Tim McInnerny), returns to reveal that he is not the friend of her friends, as she had thought, but a complete stranger who crashed the party. He proceeds to blow his brains out -- not a very nice way to thank someone for dinner.

The rest of the movie attempts to tell us why, through flashbacks and the investigation of a handsome local cop, this man with "a central, disfiguring blankness" chose this very nice unmarried schoolteacher to witness his final act.

An unpleasantly empty-headed young woman, a schoolmate of Morgan's from his university, appears on Travers' doorstep and stays a while, occasionally issuing cryptic remarks. It seems her lack of response to anything drives people mad -- including Morgan, who pursued her with unseemly obsession.

Travers' first love is also portrayed in flashbacks, revealing her introduction to sex, the departure of her airman boyfriend overseas, and his death. It is not clear whether this experience permanently blunted her emotions. She appears to be quite an accomplished, intelligent and sensual person, but evidently Hare is trying to connect the early disaster with the later one. Redgrave as a young woman is played by her daughter, Joely Richardson, an attractive young woman with an unfortunate nose and none of her mother's charisma as an actress.

Redgrave can rarely do wrong on screen, but this picture uses her trembly sensitivity and not much else. She seems strangely detached. Hare is continually having her and others in the cast deliver pronouncements, which blare forth like Brechtian signboards. As the policeman warns her about security, one of Redgrave's is: "It doesn't matter how well you've locked up, sometimes you're going to have to let people in." "Police always bring sadness" is another.

There are slight asides on the Meaning of Education, suicide as "the ultimate practical joke," and feminism, which is represented by Redgrave and a sullen woman cop. The cast includes veteran stage actors Judi Dench, as Redgrave's best friend, and Ian Holm, as her husband, who do their best, and Suzanna Hamilton as the mysteriously ominous young woman.

The fatal attraction of Redgrave's character to her suicidal guest is evidently her hidden loneliness, which he accuses her of as though he had detected some untended physical affliction like herpes. Unfortunately, by the time this revelation is made one no longer cares.