by Mel Valentin
Written and directed by Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") and based on the 1951 novel, "A Way Through the Wood" by the late British author Nigel Balchin, "Separate Lies" is an often rewarding, layered mystery/drama centered on an upper-middle class couple and the (partly foreseeable) consequences that inevitably flow from a tragic, senseless accident, including key revelations about their relationship. That accident tests both characters in unexpected ways, ultimately leading to a series of relationship-threatening relationships and crises. "Separate Lies" is also a study in the corrosive effects of moral complacency, of placing physical comforts over and above emotional intimacy (and both characters pay the price).On the surface, James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Anne (Emily Watson), have a near-perfect, upper-middle class life. James, a professionally successful solicitor in London, and Anne own a country manor in Buckinghamshire outside of London, used for frequent weekend getaways. Although Anne has no career of her own (if she had any professional ambitions, they're left unrevealed), she expends a great deal of effort to keep James’ home life functioning efficiently. At a cricket match, Anne, bored and lonely, strikes up a conversation with William Bule (Rupert Everett), the wealthy, idle son of Lord Rawston (John Neville), a local representative of the British aristocracy. James takes an instant disliking to the terse, snobbish William. Anne, however, is taken with William, who seems to want little out of life, except food, wine, and sex. Separate Lies seems to be heading toward romantic entanglements, infidelity, and the fallout that accompanies deceit once it’s exposed.
"A near great film hampered by one or two minor missteps."
Despite James’ mild protestations, Anne decides to hold a dinner party in Buckinghamshire (only their social equals are invited). James, working night in London, misses the dinner party. Not coincidentally, a black Range Rover strikes an elderly man on bicycle moments before the party begins. As it turns out, the injured man is married to Maggie (Linda Bassett), the Mannings' housekeeper. How and to what degree one or several characters may be in the accident and its aftermath becomes the central, unanswered question that runs through Separate Lies. One lie is told, then another, with the lies building on each other, until a series of revelations, conflicts, complications, and reversals threaten to destabilize James and Anne's relationship. As James and Anne’s relationship continues a downward spiral, a police officer, Inspector Marshall (David Harewood), begins to make inquiries of the Mannings and William, each time testing the veracity and consistency of their stories.
Interestingly, Fellowes handles class issues as subtext, with William representing a fading aristocracy, the Mannings’ the mobile, entrepreneurial middle class, and Maggie (and her injured husband), the working class. Significantly, both James and William treat Maggie dismissively, with only Anne consistently crossing class lines to express sympathy for Maggie (there’s an unanswered question, however, whether Anne has an ulterior motive for her behavior toward Maggie). James is at his most unlikable in his treatment of Maggie, expressing sympathy through empty platitudes. James is also more than willing to sacrifice William to the police when the opportunity arises (more to eliminate a potential rival than out of a desire to see justice done). Nonetheless, Fellowes manages to make all three characters sympathetic on some level, none more so than James, who learns humility through self-abnegation, debasement, and masochism.
Separate Lies is partially undermined by an unnecessarily long, at times unengaging, denouement, most likely traceable to the obligatory, fetishistic desire for fidelity in novel-to-film adaptations (either that, or an unsteady hand in the directing chair interested in creating sympathetic characters at the expense of dramatic conflict). Fellowes also makes the idiosyncratic choice to initially employ voice over narration, delivered by a backward-looking James ruminating on human flaws, drops it for most of the film, and then brings James’ voice over narration back post-climax (to help note the passage of several months), before sending the film into the extended denouement that presumably gives the characters the choice between self-sacrifice and self-interest. It's worth mentioning, however, that Fellows added the mystery storyline to Separate Lies (the original novel focuses exclusively on the romantic triangle). To his credit, Fellowes, ensures that both storylines mesh and converge organically.Nonetheless, "Separate Lies" benefits from sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters (even the callow William proves to have hidden reserves of decency and integrity), intense, committed performances from its two leads, Tom Wilkinson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "In the Bedroom") and Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves," "Hilary and Jackie"), sharp, incisive dialogue in the dramatic relationship scenes, and an engaging, taut storyline constructed around the accident and the emotionally charged aftermath that irrevocably alters the characters' lives.
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originally posted: 10/07/05 16:14:17