Separate Lies Review
By Nicholas Schager
A film that would be perfectly at home on the BBC or PBS, Julian Fellowes' Separate Lies is a solid if somewhat stolid tale of romance, betrayal, and deception that's something akin to Gosford Park (which Fellowes' scripted) by way of In the Bedroom. Adapted from Nigel Balchin's novel A Way Through the Wood, Fellowes' directorial debut is much like its upper-crust married protagonists James (Tom Wilkinson) and Anne Manning (Emily Watson) in that its competent and classy exterior masks a messy, banal interior as it charts the couple's slow disintegration. With made-for-TV blandness, the film chronicles adultery, murder, and deceit involving callous young stallion William Bule (Rupert Everett) and the Mannings' loyal maid Maggie (Linda Bassett). That isn't to say that this well-acted, tasteful film is a waste; rather, it's simply a somewhat stuffy British production whose boilerplate melodrama leaves little room for a revelatory examination of selfishness, sneakiness, self-preservation, and sacrifice.
James and Anne's wealth affords them life's finest luxury accoutrements (residences in both London and the country, fancy cars, servants), but restlessness simmers underneath this apparently cheery, perfect veneer, with Anne soon catapulting their domestic bliss into chaos when she begins a torrid affair with William. When a mysterious Range Rover runs down Maggie's husband, Anne and William come under suspicion for the murder from both the police and James, the latter of whom endeavors to protect his wife (and, equally as important, his own reputation as a big-time barrister) by helping to cover up her possible role in the crime. Fellowes wastes little time on mystery, however, as his prime preoccupation is the method by which relationships crumble due to tragedies both big (the hit-and-run death) and, just as vitally, small (James and Anne's lack of warmth, inability to communicate, and joint desire to sweep unhappiness under the Persian rug lest it disrupt their comfortable existence). And with Anne unwilling to cast aside her youngish paramour to return to her husband, the film quickly becomes a case study in people's inability to fully suppress their most urgent desires and discontent.
The ensuing amorous treachery and devotion plays out like a romance novel as conceived by Masterpiece Theatre, with Fellowes' plain-Jane visual schema incapable of enlivening his story's stultifying ordinariness in the way that Robert Altman's fluid, roaming direction gave Gosford Park's upstairs-downstairs shenanigans both wit and grace. Separate Lies sits up on the screen inertly, failing to convey the pulse-pounding desperation and misery that's trying to break through the surface of James and Anne's pleasant facades. Yet even if the action frequently progresses with lethargic limpness, Wilkinson and Watson color the film with a full-bodied hue that Fellowes, for all of his dignified establishing shots and predictably edited arguments, is unable to muster. And though Wilkinson sporadically succumbs to the affected rigidity that sometimes mars his work, Watson uses quiet restraint to beautifully convey Anne's pent-up melancholy, whether in a quarrel during which her destruction of a carefully arranged vegetable plate speaks to the disruption of her life's order and stability, or in a later shot in which she mechanically applies make-up at her dressing room mirror, a vain attempt to put a happy face on a hopeless, lost marriage.
Don't forget to wear sunscreen.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 18th November 2005
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: DNA Films, UK Film Council, Celador Films
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 63 Rotten: 25
Cast & Crew