Walking out of the Fine Arts on Friday night after seeing Julian Fellowes’ Separate Lies, I overheard a woman tell a friend, who was on her way in, that the film was “very dry, but marvelously acted.” Once on the sidewalk, I turned to my companion and said, “I think ‘dry’ is about the last word I would use to describe Separate Lies.” He agreed, admitting he wasn’t even sure he liked it, but adding that it was, if nothing else, “thought-provoking.”
It turned out to be at the very least conversation-provoking, since over a couple of frou-frou coffees from the coffee bus, we proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes discussing it — or at least the thoughts it had provoked. Now, as far as I’m concerned, any movie that can do that is a success — even if “only” artistically, since attendance was pretty sparse for the 7:20 show.
A couple of days later I’m not sure either how much I actually liked the film, but I don’t question its power or its quality. As for it being dry … I’m guessing that has more to do with the film’s upper-class, and class-conscious, British quality than with the material itself. This is probably accentuated by the story line (not to be confused with the underlying real story) being like that of a very proper British whodunit of the kind you might see on Mystery!. That’s not very surprising, since writer Julian Fellowes — here making a very solid directorial debut — was the author of the Robert Altman film Gosford Park.
What he’s done here, however, isn’t really a mystery — especially, since it gives up the answer to whodunit pretty early on. But then Gosford Park, while it does qualify as bona fide British mystery, was ultimately a kind of character/class study that had as much to do with Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game as it did with anything from Agatha Christie.
The film opens with a startling flash-forward to the hit-and-run accident that propels the events, and then backtracks to set up the main characters and the world they inhabit. James (Tom Wilkinson) and Anne Manning (Emily Watson) are an apparently happy couple spending their free time at a beautiful country house, though James is often away in London plying his trade as a high-powered solicitor (described by Anne as “expensive” rather than good). Into their world has come William Bule (Rupert Everett), a dissolute young man with a lot of money and even more time on his hands. It’s not hard to figure where this will lead — up to and including the hit-and-run.
What is hard to figure out is the increasingly labyrinthine nature of the relationships, which are among the most realistically complex I’ve ever encountered in a film. And that’s true even if one aspect of the final situation relies on a plot contrivance.
Despite the ill-advised manner in which Anne blurts out her relationship with Bule (it’s distracting that it’s almost identical to an outburst in Cabaret), there’s a weighty reality at work behind it all. Much as in a Renoir film (again), we’re in a world where the filmmaker recognizes that “everybody has his reasons,” a world of shades of gray without clear-cut villains or heroes. Recounting the story would be a disservice to Separate Lies, but ask yourself whether the “final” test (one of many) that James sets Anne actually is another failure or a sad victory for both of them.
Fellowes turns out to be every bit as good a director as he is a writer — not a given by any means in such a transition. Just watch the scene between James and Bule in the restaurant to see a brilliant use of filmmaking to heighten the intensity of an already powerful sequence.
Dry? I don’t think so. These characters hide behind a reserve and a passion for “keeping on keeping on” that may pass for dryness, but their pain and their longing is more palpably real than any amount of overtly dramatic breast-beating. Rated R for language including some sexual references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke