The electro-jazz two-step that plays as the credits roll over the beginning of Isabel Coixet's The Secret Life of Words is terribly misleading, as is most of the music that is used in the film: David Byrne, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Portuguese pop. The only song that fits in fact, besides the small bursts of wind instruments and opera, is Antony and the Johnson's harrowing "Hope There's Someone," a song so morose, moody, and beautiful that when it's used, my attention strained more to it than of Coixet's images. There's a reason for that.
Josef (Tim Robbins) lies on a bed, blinded and scarred by a fire that killed his best friend on the oil rig they both worked on. Hanna (Sarah Polley), on forced vacation from her warehouse work employer, quickly takes a temporary position as his nurse, doing anything to stay in some sort of routine. She starts out isolated and completely silent but she soon befriends the men on the oil rig while tending to the charming but haunted Josef. She talks about food and jokes with Simon the chef (Javier Cámara) and talks about waves and the sea with the nervy Martin (Daniel Mays). However, she doesn't really reveal herself to anyone but Josef, and most of the film is made up of conversations between them. When it becomes obvious that Josef needs more serious work, Hanna spends a last night with him, telling him about why she is so reserved and regulated. Josef gets better and attempts to reconnect with Hanna through her counselor (Julie Christie) and sees if they might have something real between them.
In technical aspects, there is nothing wrong with the film. It's directed very well and the psychological underpinnings are explained (maybe a little too much) with a very even temperament. Jean-Claude Larrieu's cinematography shows talent and a certain delicacy but never rocks the boat enough to be noticeable. What troubles me about the film is the lack of danger, the dull romanticism of the inner corridors in the oil rig and dialogue that speaks about something, but stumbles when turning inward.
Coixet's script has the feel of a extremist soap opera, with moments of extreme discomfort (not the good kind) and never uses the small pieces of drama it sets up (the dead man's wife, the obvious attraction both Simon and Martin have for Hanna). The only thing that really works is the relationship between Hanna and Josef, and thank God for Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley, who know these characters inside and out, trapdoors and all. They both make these scenes so captivating that we hold on just for them.
Drama can be about tone, silence, and unsaid words, but it doesn't work if you don't construct characters that really matter to us, and in film, there needs to be a larger sweep to fill the space. What we are watching is a well-filmed play with sometimes insufferably trite dialogue (I nearly laughed when Robbins said "I'll learn to swim") but it's not enough to constitute a two-hour film where the world outside of the two characters is given even, if not more, time than the characters. In plain terms, it's boring, but at least the soundtrack is good.
Aka La Vida secreta de las palabas.