Judge Brendan Babish thinks that sponge bath almost makes covering your body in third degree burns worth it.
Josef: I thought, um, you and I, maybe we could go away somewhere. Together. One of these days. Today. Right now. Come with me.
Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet re-teams with Canadian actress Sarah Polley—star of Coixet's 2003 film, My Life Without Me—for another understated melodrama. Though it won the 2006 Goya for Best Picture—the Goyas are the national film awards for Spain—I'm guessing you didn't see it in the theaters, since it netted a whopping $20,000 in its domestic theatrical run.
Facts of the Case
Hannah (Polley) is a quiet, partially deaf factory worker who eats the same bland meal every day and never takes vacations. When her boss finally forces her to take some time off, she manages to land a job as a nurse on an oil rig. Her sole charge is Josef (Tim Robbins, Mystic River), an affable man who is suffering from severe burns and a temporary loss of eyesight. Though Hannah quietly tends to Josef, he talks incessantly, bombarding her with jokes, observations, and anecdotes from his life. Over time, beckoned by Josef's entreaties, as well as the other, assorted odd fellows on the rig, Hannah slowly emerges from her shell of silence.
The Secret Life of Words is an unfortunate title, so nondescript and unevocative, it seems especially burdening to affix it to a subtle drama that lacks real star power. Certainly the film's handle deserves part of the blame for its miniscule box office, but unfortunately, not all of it.
Though there are a few supporting characters, the movie's central plot only involves Hannah and Josef. They have a relationship somewhat similar to Ralph Fiennes's badly burned hero in The English Patient, Count Laszlo, and his nurse, coincidently also named Hana, played by Juliette Binoche. Both Laszlo and Josef are haunted by a fateful love affair, which they are forced to reflect on while convalescing from their injuries. Thankfully, both are attended to by comely nurses, who patiently listen to their recollections. The big difference is that in The English Patient, Laszlo's relationship with Hana is only an effective subplot to a larger story; in The Secret Life of Words Josef's relationship with Hannah constitutes nearly the entire movie; at just under two hours, that's a lot of movie, and more than those two can support.
Upon being introduced to Hannah, Josef immediately asks her whether she prefers her men circumcised or uncircumcised. Thankfully, he is not so coarse throughout, but for the first few days of their acquaintance, he tries to endear himself by hectoring his shy nurse with invasive questions. I do have sympathy for Coixet; it must be extremely challenging to write and direct a film centering on two characters that spend so much time in one room; and one of these characters can barely move, which makes it all the more difficult. This puts an especially strong burden on dialogue; as good an actor as Tim Robbins is, and as affable as Josef can be, the character is not very captivating while confined to a hospital bed. At his worst, such as the circumcision question, he is loutish. At his best, such as the scene in which he recounts memories of his childhood, his dialogue sounds like the overly evocative output of a talented creative writing student. Josef certainly has his charms, but one has trouble imagining any blue-collar oil rig worker—or anyone, for that matter—expressing himself in such flowery, ornamental language.
The plot does take an interesting turn upon entering its third act, which consists of 30 minutes so superior to the rest of film it almost feels like watching another movie altogether. Still, my feelings are somewhat mixed on the catalyst for this twist. When Hannah finally does open up to Josef, Polley delivers a stunning soliloquy that is often singled out for praise by other reviews of the film. While I agree that Polley's performance is captivating, this scene introduces elements to the film that are undeniably powerful and disturbing, and I'm not sure the movie's earned the right to address these issues. For almost 90 minutes the story was largely underwhelming, and this late addition of tragedy almost felt like an artificial way to engender meaning into otherwise mediocre melodrama. There are some films that handle such heavy subject matters, like the Holocaust, that critical perspective becomes difficult to maintain; with these films criticism seems crass and heartless. Suddenly, after being underwhelmed for two acts, The Secret Life of Words takes a dark turn and now I'm forced to feel uncomfortable being critical.
That said, I'm well aware this film has been very well received by the small number of those who have seen it; and I'm not surprised. It is earnest, well-written, and anchored by two strong performances; I almost feel guilty for not being more affected. But what can I say—I'm just a heartless curmudgeon.
Further compounding my frustration is the fact that Universal has released this DVD with absolutely no special features, not even a trailer. I guess after its box office performance the brass decided to spend the least amount of money possible on the DVD production. At least they've provided a clear, pristine print so you can gander at that steel, sooty oilrig in all its glory.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was especially disappointed in The Secret Life of Words because Sarah Polley gives yet another remarkable performance in a non-remarkable film. Polley has got to be one of the best young actresses working today, and yet she is probably most recognized for the admittedly fun, but lightweight Dawn of the Dead. Anyone who isn't familiar with her work would be better served by getting to know her through The Sweet Hereafter, Go (one of the most underrated films of the past 10 years), or her previous collaboration with Coixet, My Life Without Me.
I really wanted to like this movie. Maybe if the film was 20 minutes shorter; maybe if it didn't have that creepy voice over; maybe if I wasn't forced to spend so much time on that claustrophobic oil rig I could have recommended it. That said, The Secret Life of Words does have its moments; unfortunately, most of them are in the third act, so don't give up too early on this one.
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