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Separate Lies

In this drama from the U.K., blind spots and rose-colored glasses alike play upon the characters’ attempts to handle the truth when it incriminates someone they love.   Or indeed, someone they hate.   James (Tom Wilkinson) is a senior-partner-level solicitor, a quiet man of routine who lives what the British refer to as “the country life” with his wife, Maggie (Emily Watson), in the tony suburbs of London.   One day a hit-and-run driver strikes the couple’s housekeeper’s husband as he walks alongside the wooded road leading to their estate.   Despite the victim’s being working-class, the film is only tangentially about class dynamics.   Rather, its true subject concerns the characters’ attempts to strengthen or sever the ties that alternately bind and yoke us, one to another.  

In that a theme is infidelity vs. loyalty, I hope it doesn’t say too much to reveal that haughty, arrogant young William Bule (Rupert Everett) is Maggie’s “other man,” and that James himself has an “other woman,” his secretary (Hermione Norris). One scene of hers demands special mention.   In the depths of James’ unraveling life, she hints that she’s prepared her special spaghetti; she hopes for a companion for the evening with whom to share it, but James is oblivious.   The scene illustrates two themes of the film: (1) the deep sadness that is born when interest is not equal; and (2) how we are so protective of own feelings and yet are capable of handling those of others so carelessly and cavalierly.   The tension between the words about spaghetti and Norris’ lonely countenance speaks poignantly to the above.  

Despite the infidelities, none of these people is tawdry.   In fact, all come off as somewhat guileless.   All tell lies to protect someone for whom they care; paradoxically, the only one to tell the truth hopes to self-incriminate.   There’s more than meets the eye even to Bule, who on the surface appears amoral, unlike James and Maggie, who consider themselves essentially ethical despite their lapses.   Late in the film circumstances develop so that we meet an old man who loves his boy William tearfully, and we realize that one man’s heel is another’s beloved son.  

It’s quite hard for James to accept that his hurt isn’t Maggie’s priority, and that perhaps it shouldn’t be.   Once he does, there is a scene in which they meet on a rainy night street that for me in a sense defines the concept “love,” and perhaps even illustrates a form of grace: he doesn’t want her to suffer though she’s made him suffer, not out of malice but in the course of doing what she felt she had to do.  

Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, the film is written by, and is the directorial debut of, Julian Fellowes, who wrote “Gosford Park”.   The dialogue is sharply honed but not at all cutting, though you might expect such given the subject matter.   Rather it’s the stumbling efforts to articulate of people who aren’t really sure themselves of their motivations.   The well-modulated performances use gesture, expression and, at times, raw sound to push past the boundaries of mere words, to reach that realm which falls beyond, that of matters of the heart.   Recommended viewing.

- Oct 25, 2005 

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