Film review by: Witney Seibold
It starts out as another dry, British unhappy-marriage story. Sure it has a smooth and subtle style, and the dialogue is the natural kind of everyday wit that creeps up on you, surprising you with how good it is. But at the beginning, there’s nothing to indicate that it will not be yet another wife-cheats-on-husband/husband-gets-mad/reconciliation-or-divorce-ensues kind of stories. Tom Wilkinson is the square, workaholic, unromantic husband, and Emily Watson is his young pretty sentimental wife. We see immediately that this is not a very good pair, and infidelity is inevitable in this kind of film. Rupert Everett plays the man she may or may not be having an affair with. O.k. She is.
But then something very sneaky happens. Without us really noticing it, the film creeps out of this dull infidelity story, and settles into a noir mold of seething passions, an accidental death, and battles between various levels of good and evil. I will not say too much more about the story, as I don’t want to ruin anything, but know that it is kind of twisty. The transition from melodrama to noir is so sneaky, so skillfully inserted, so engaging. Writer/director Julian Fellowes, who wrote the scintillating, if not a mite confusing Gosford Park a few years back, works like a pickpocket, maneuvering us through this story with an uncanny deftness. Wilkinson, just when you thought he was folding into the Batman and Exorcism mire, gives a performance to rival that of his in In the Bedroom, and Watson was more than just window-dressing: when grilled about why it was she wanted to have an affair, she knows better than to dodge. She explains that she is not in love with the man, or needs him carnally. She just needs someone who doesn’t care. It makes so much sense, the way she says it.
The film then shifts a second time close to the end, and moves back into a real human drama. A drama in which we see just how good-at-heart the husband, the wife, and the extra man actually are. By then, though, we’re so inundated by Fellowes’ subtle style that we’re on solid footing, and we understand it all. Separate Lies is a very good film.
One caveat: it’s a British film and is full of British angst. Naturally, for some of us American audience members, this precludes a certain degree of slowness; the film’s pace may anger some audience members expecting something a little more potboiler-ish and sexy.
September 30th, Fox Searchlight