Separate Lies is aptly named, as the film promises one thing in its early stages and, by its convoluted end, delivers quite another. In the tradition of other such charmingly boilerplate British films as Enchanted April, Calendar Girls, and Gosford Park (for which director Julian Fellows wrote the screenplay), this movie presents us with the portrait of a couple who excel at being privileged members of the upper crust. Emily Watson (Anne) is an impeccably dressed, dutiful stay-at-home wife, and her husband, the talented Tom Wilkinson, is James, her high-powered solicitor (read: lawyer) husband. They own both a lavish county cottage in a lush village and a well-appointed London flat. In the spirit of heavy-handed foreshadowing, they even have a dog named Justice. How could these two have any sort of problems, you ask? They’re filthy rich, he fights for the good of the people, she’s pretty and, most importantly, they’re white. No worries, right?
As we all know, however, nothing makes wealthy people more angsty than being completely free of any worry and, like mischievous squirrels, they’re soon to be rummaging about in the rubbish, getting into any and all sorts of crises and tragedies. This conceit is all too evident right away in Separate Lies. When the seemingly blissful couple is at the local cricket match, Anne spies the handsome William (Rupert Everett) and within a few frames is hurling herself at him. William is a callous young lad, which we’re shown by the snotty way that he snarls his monosyllabic dialogue at the mousy Anne. That these two characters are going to hump each other is presented to the audience in a manner that’s about as subtle as a bulldozer. But the melodrama presented by this well-trod material suddenly veers sloppily into film-noir territory, as those involved in the love triangle become implicated in a murder. It seems that a local hit-and-run was perpetrated by the two adulterers, and cuckolded husband James is faced with the moral dilemma of perverting justice (no, NOT the aforementioned dog) in order to protect the woman he loves and — let’s not kid ourselves — his career as a top solicitor. It’s here that the film’s most compelling moments take place. The tension is palpable in a masterfully acted kitchen scene where Anne confesses her affair to James. After drifting off during the clumsy beginning, I felt overjoyed that the film was finally declaring its intentions. It seemed that Separate Lies had morphed into a darkly comedic morality tale — not unlike the unforgettable In The Bedroom, in which Wilkinson also starred.
However, this entertaining precedent is not long lived. In a moment that could only be described as schizophrenic, the movie then presents a deus ex machina in which all those implicated in the manslaughter are miraculously absolved. Uh, OK. This is usually where a film ends, and rightly so. But Separate Lies refuses to be cowed by this act of common decency. Instead, the movie drags on for another 20 or so minutes, in which time Anne leaves James for William, then goes back to James, then reunites with William upon learning he has cancer. What?! Yes, now we’re in what threatens to be a Lifetime movie, as banal and tear-jerking as possible. The film ends with James making an impassioned speech to his estranged wife at the doorstep of her lover’s cancer hospice, explaining that he loves her regardless. I wish I were kidding.
I don’t really know what Separate Lies would be classified as: unintentional dramedy? moralistic melodrama? stuffy, boring homage to the trials and tribulations of the poor, poor wealthy? The screenwriting is the culprit here, because the performances given by the actors, especially Watson and Wilkinson, are exceptional. But their characters are mere cardboard cutouts, lacking depth and any form of dimension — especially Watson’s Anne, whose melancholy, spineless mewling makes one hope that there’ll be a second murder in the film. I suppose the Separate Lies referenced in the title reside in the film being one part made-for-television pap, one part stodgy “Masterpiece Theater.” Do yourself a favor: Close your eyes and think of England.
Brandy Barber is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can check out her weblog Hatefully Charming.Separate Lies / Brandy Barber
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()