Separate Lies

2006-10-20 11:37


James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) is pretty sure his life is perfect. With a loving wife, Anne (Emily Watson), a distinguished law career, a house in London and another in the country, James seems to have it all. Then their cleaner, Maggie (Linda Basset), loses her husband in a hit and run accident, and James begins to suspect his handsome and aristocratic neighbour Bill Bule (Rupert Everett). Ever the upright gentleman, James confronts Bill and threatens to turn him in. Little does he realise that his beloved Anne may be involved, both in the accident and romantically with Bule. Suddenly all his clear-cut moral choices are muddied, and James finds himself in a maelstrom of deceit and infidelity.


There's something quintessentially English about Separate Lies that doesn't come from setting, cast or even subject matter. It has an understated and restrained air, a delicacy of emotion and a seriousness of purpose that is peculiarly British. It's this essence that helps keep this convoluted moral fable grounded, and gives the film a touch of class so obviously missing from Hollywood's sturm und drang tales of infidelity and murder.

Writer Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for Gosford Park) makes his directorial debut and, on the whole, handles things rather well. His screenplay, liberally adapted from a 1951 novel by Nigel Balchin called "A Way Through the Wood", is certainly interesting, but works far too hard to cover all the bases. Though it starts out credibly enough, Separate Lies eventually begins to feel more like a study in morality and human behaviour than a movie.

But plot hardly seems to matter when you're watching the superb cast in action. Both Wilkinson and Watson excel in roles which call for subtle control and understatement, and they have rarely been better than here. As the emotional centre of the film, Wilkinson gives one of the best performances of his career, capturing every nuance of his character and hitting every beat in the script. It's a pleasure to watch Watson revelling in this sultry, thorny and complex role. She has always had a bewitching quality, and Fellowes' writing only seems to magnify it.

The supporting cast as not quite as good, but Rupert Everett is still very amusing as the louche aristocratic bounder. He slopes through the movie with such an air of indifference that you sometimes wonder if he's really acting. The dependable Linda Basset gives a committed performances as the family's cleaner, and the rest of the parts are nicely handled by fine actors like Hermione Norris and David Harewood who bring depth to their small roles.

On the whole Separate Lies is an interesting and well put together piece of work, but it is too concerned with going through moral gymnastics to ever be completely satisfying. That said, fans of intelligent and understated drama ought not to miss it. After all, how often do you get to hear dialogue in a movie that a real human being might say, rather than an action hero or a cartoon hedgehog?

- Alistair Fairweather

The famous English stiff upper lip is tested to the limits in this intriguing but uneven tale of infidelity and death. Strong performances by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson make it a must see.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.