The Theory of Chaos

Monday, September 17, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Separate Lies

Originally published 9/21/05
Full review behind the jump

Separate Lies

: Julian Fellows
: Julian Fellows, based on the novel A Way Through the Woods by Nigel Balchin
: Steve Clark-Hall, Christian Colson
: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett, Linda Bassett, John Neville, David Harewood

An extraordinary scene begins when James Manning (Tom Wilkson) walks into his kitchen, sees his wife Anne (Emily Watson) chopping vegetables, and mentions with feigned casualness “
I had lunch with Bill Bule today”. Halfway through the conversation, after James has learned something life-altering, he will ask: “Are you going to use that dish?”, which is the wrong question for that moment. Then he learns another life-altering fact, and the scene ends with him vomiting in the garden.

Separate Lies
, the directing debut of Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellows, is built on these knotty intersections of crushing moral quandary and the keeping up of appearances. It is a movie where a genteel bike ride through the English countryside is jarringly interrupted by speeding car, and where a man wants to accuse someone he hates of murder, but doesn’t want to do it over the phone so he invites him to a posh lunch. It is also the story about how the Mannings can only find some love for each other again when their marriage starts to disintegrate.

Not much is said about how James and Anne first came together but it’s almost beside the point, the life they have now is the one James has made for them. He’s a powerful solicitor, which he always regrets keeps him at the office late, and they have a weekend home in the country where he complains about having to consort with the kind of people who have homes in the country. His is an uneasy satisfaction, where he’s proud of his talent for playing the game of achieving success and status and displaying good taste and virtue, but he thought there was going to be more to it after all that.

Anne can see the importance he’s placed on this and does her best to contribute, but she doesn’t have the knack for it and we can see how it’s gradually unwinding her. It’s almost painful how clumsily transparent her curiosity is in Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a handsome lout who dresses a bit like Hugh Grant in About A Boy and gives even less of a damn about anything or anyone than Hugh did. After living with impossible expectations for 15 years, someone with no expectations at all would seem fairly exotic.

And then there’s that business with the car crashing into the man on the bike, killing him. He’s the husband of the Mannings’ cleaner/housewoman Maggie (Linda Bassett), and the movie tracks her grief and the unique way she achieves peace with almost no direct indication but perfect confidence.

A police inspector (David Harewood) pokes around asking about Range Rovers with dents in their sides. He’s professional and intelligent, but we can see he’s dealt with wealthy country folks before and is always watchful for the way they can close ranks around the idea that if someone is already dead, why create even more embarrassment by arresting someone for the crime?

Plots about both infidelity and this murder – which ceases to be a mystery and becomes a conspiracy with unlikely participants – unfold during high-powered meetings, garden parties, jaunts to the seaside in Wales, and stays in expensive Paris hotels. It’s almost as if the characters are helpless participants in the exercise of enjoying all this wealth and privilege in the correct way; except for Bule, who does and says whatever he likes and is well past bored with people getting shocked about it. It’s interesting to wonder if anything else in the story would have unfolded the way it did had Bill Bule not insulted the painting hanging above James’ mantel.

As a first-time director Fellows does himself every possible service with a tight screenplay and a reliable cast. Wilkinson is the modern master of tortured domesticity, there’s something about the way he can let out his buttoned-up rage and sound like he’s not used to raising his voice. And Watson is an ideal match for him, scattered and fearful but fierce, under her genteel manners, about being the wife he has cast her to play. Time should also be spared to mention the great John Neville, who plays Bule’s father and gets a remarkable scene where he reveals what he has learned is really important to him through the various ordeals of a long life.

It would be dry to say Separate Lies is a movie about getting your priorities straight, but it is expert in the way it plunges flawed and complicated characters into the kinds of situations where you do discover what really matters to you, and must face what that says about you. Every one of the major characters in this movie does something which is at least criminally dishonest, and in some cases much worse. But they also do things that are human, and further still they all do things which are, in the final analysis, decent, though they may not conform to social contracts. Maybe what’s most impressive (or troubling?) about the film is that, in the end, having seen the worst these people are capable of, we like them more than we did at the beginning.


  • However many times I watch "Seperate Lies" I hate it .It reeks of English class snobbery .I find Emily Watson's character as attractive as a limp lettuce leaf . As for Bill Bule it's perfectly possible to see how any bored woman would get a rather enormous amount of desire for him but he is ghastly( b.t.w he isn't dressed like Hugh Grant in anything is he ? I can never understand why anyone ever thinks Rupert Everett is anything like Hugh ( the most pathetic of actors , they only share being English in common). I havn't seen many H.G movies so take your word about the clothes. The most difficult characters to understand are the cleaning woman who should forgive no-one and Tom Wilkinson's who as my husband says must be secretly glad to get rid of his ghastly wife.If you have the D.V.D and listen to Julian Fellowes rattling on about himself and how clever it all is you'll hate it all the more.

    By Anonymous angie Cox, at 11:38 PM  

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