The Secret Life of Words

2007-01-16 17:35

Hanna (Sarah Polley) is a solitary and mysterious young woman who works in a factory. She speaks to no one, eats the same thing for every meal and wears a hearing aid that she turns off to isolate herself further from the world. Forced by her boss to take a vacation, she travels to Northern Ireland where, on a whim, she volunteers to be a nurse on an oil rig in the Irish Sea to tend to Josef (Tim Robbins) who has been burned in a flash fire. The burns have left Josef temporarily blind but have not dampened his flirtatious spirit, and he is eager to discover who his enigmatic nurse truly is. As Hanna tends to his wounds, Josef attempts in vain to extract information about her, all the while telling her about his own troubled past. Hannah even refuses to tell Josef her real name or the colour of her hair. Yet, a strange intimacy gradually develops between them and when Josef is about to be transferred off the rig, Hanna decides to divulge her darkest secret to him.


The Secret Life of Words is a mystery, both literally and metaphorically. On the face of it this is a dour, talky drama in which very little physical action takes place. And yet, within less than two hours, it encapsulates a love story, a war memorial, a detective story, an existential journey and a half a dozen other strands.

Much of the film’s effectiveness rests on its superb dialogue. Writer / director Isabel Coixet has an ear for the subtleties of natural language, but it is her ability to add multiple emotional layers that makes the conversations so compelling. As the characters talk to each other, we feel as though they are gradually peeling away layers, revealing more and more of what they really think and feel.

Of course Coixet would be lost without actors capable of carrying off her delicately boned script, but her choice in leads is as solid as her writing. Sarah Polley, who worked with Coixet previously on the more melodramatic My Life Without Me, brings a restrained intensity to her role, and a level of vulnerability that is almost painful to watch.

She is matched beat for beat by an on form Tim Robins, who inhabits the multilayered Josef completely. As in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, he plays the damaged man to perfection, but this time with a cheeky swagger that makes him impossible not to like. He and Polley share a risky, disconcerting chemistry, as though they are gradually stripping each other naked in front of the audience. And, though he only has a small role as the oil rig’s misunderstood chef, the incomparable Javier Camara steals every scene he is in.

Watching The Secret Life of Words, you’re struck by how different its whole modus operandi is from mainstream film. Hollywood and its imitators are obsessed with active, masculine films that thrust their meaning at you, and carve out packages of un-reality in which everything ties up neatly. Filmmakers like Coixet, Jane Campion and Lars Von Trier are more interested in a passive, feminine process that opens itself up to exploration by the audience and refuses to explain all the details.

The Secret Life of Words isn’t for everyone. It is a slow, deeply reflective film which delves into uncomfortable emotional and historical territory, and never bothers to sweeten the mix with flippancy or sentiment. This isn’t entertainment, this is art, and it was never intended to be fun or diverting. But, given a chance, it will touch you like few other films can.

- Alistair Fairweather
It may be sombre, slow moving and sometimes a little too obscure, but this beautifully crafted and exceptionally well acted movie has a way of getting under your skin and lingering for days.

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