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1 review, 3 user ratings

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Secret Life of Words, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Nobody gets you down like Sarah Polley and Isabel Coixet."
4 stars

One of the people I saw "The Secret Life of Words" with described it as a "feel-bad movie", which isn't quite fair: Hope does occasionally manage to crack its dour nature. Its goals are, I think, a little more abstract than making the audience feel good or feel bad; writer/director Isabel Coixet seems to be more interested in the difference between feeling and not feeling at all.

"Not feeling" is represented by Hanna (Sarah Polley), a Balkan refugee who has been quietly working at a silk plant in England for the past four years without a sick day or vacation. Indeed, her boss insists she take a month off, lest the other employees think their jobs are in danger if they don't meet her example. A seaside holiday doesn't bring her any pleasure, though, so when she overhears a man at a nearby table talking on the phone about the difficulty of hiring a nurse to tend a patient on an oil rig, she immediately offers her services. That patient is Josef (Tim Robbins), who feels far too much, thanks to severe burns from an accident that killed his friend.

Hanna and Josef are both damaged people, in a very literal sense: Hanna's hearing is severely impaired (she won't discuss how other than to say she wasn't born that way. On top of the burns, Josef was blinded by his accident. It will, of course, be some time before they tell us what has hurt them emotionally; Hanna won't even respond truthfully to Josef's most innocent questions, even to the point of revealing her name.

It's fascinating how well - and how completely - Coixet and Polley stage Hanna's retreat from the world. Polley plays Hanna as numb, but still trying to be number. She can't rely on the painkillers that she gives Josef, but she'll try everything else: Turning off her hearing aid. Saying as little as possible. Eating the same bland, precisely-portioned meal of chicken, white rice, and half an apple every day. Washing with particular, odorless bars of soap that she discards after one use. There's a deadness to Hanna, to be sure - she almost never smiles, frowns, or raises her voice - but there's also enough pain and fear in her eyes to make it clear that this is the result of planned, deliberate effort. That's why Polley's Performance is so good - she makes us feel every piece of those carefully-built walls coming down, whether in the moment where she wolfs down the food prepared by the rig's cook or when she's just sitting near him on a swing.

Simon the cook (Javier Camara) is probably the warmest character in the whole film; he's on the rig for isolation like everyone else - he's licking the wounds of a failed restaurant - but he embraces sensation the way Hanna runs from it, choosing a different cuisine every day and immersing the music while he cooks. He probably only needs a little push, like Hanna tearing into his food while the rest of the rig's skeleton crew asks for a simple burger, to be ready to face the world again. Camara's character is the truest counterpoint to Polley's, although it's Tim Robbins's Josef that the film focuses on. Robbins gives a pretty good performance, too, considering he's immobile and unable to make eye contact for the vast majority of the movie. He's enjoyably difficult to pigeonhole; the way Josef talks to Hanna walks a fine line between an outgoing person being friendly and a guy who doesn't realize that nurses only have to see to their charge's health, not open up to or share anything with him. The rest of the cast is good, filling Hanna's and Josef's world with distinct personalities.

Coixet likes to hold shots for a while, perching the camera in one spot for just as long as she can without the shot feeling excessively static. She's got a knack for finding interesting things to look at, whether it be a pet goose thoroughly out of place on the rig or the peculiar, tight spaces where its human inhabitants live and work. I get the feeling that she really puts a great deal of thought into set decoration, almost to the point of bludgeoning her audience with the symbolism of it: Look at how empty Hanna's apartment is compared to the car of the man who hires her! Note how getting to her safe, clean home means traveling past heaps of junk, including a beached, rotting boat! See how these people who feel they don't fit in with the rest of us relocate themselves to a man-made island! Those choices are mostly obvious in retrospect, but Coixet never quite gets the narration that occasionally appears during Hanna's less communicative periods to feel like it really belongs. Similarly, the lecture that Julie christie's character gives Josef on a Very Important Subject comes close to becoming her lecturing the audience and potentially minimizing Hanna as an individual by reducing what she's been through to moral issues.

Never completely, though. For all her needs to make sure the audience gets the point and give everything a double meaning, Coixet is great with her cast. It's a shame that the film only had a tiny blip of a release in the U.S.; Sarah Polley's performance is as great and sad as her last collaboration with Coixet ("My Life Without Me"), at the very least, deserves notice.

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originally posted: 03/10/07 14:20:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2007 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/31/08 Vito Roppo Sarah Polley is astoundingly good. It seems her every performance is a high water mark. 5 stars
7/21/07 Giulia Muntoni It was amazing, wonderful! 5 stars
4/25/06 Martha Vasquez Quite but touching movie. 4 stars
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  DVD: 08-May-2007



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