Judge Michael Rankins went out for tea and scones right in the middle of this movie.
"No life is perfect, though it may seem to be. Secrets and discontent lie hidden beneath the smoothest surface. In this, as in so many things, my life was no exception."—James Manning (Tom Wilkinson)
Written and directed by the actor turned Academy Award-winning screenwriter behind Gosford Park and the most recent screen version of Vanity Fair, Separate Lies brings Julian Fellowes's incisive perceptions about British class and morality into a sharp contemporary focus.
If only it offered more in the way of emotional fireworks.
Facts of the Case
James Manning (Tom Wilkinson, In The Bedroom) leads an ideal existence, or so it would appear. A respected solicitor in a high-powered international law firm, James lives with his much younger trophy wife Anne (Emily Watson, Equilibrium) in a lovely English country manor, from whose pastoral environs James manages his rigidly ordered schedule of cricket matches, garden parties, and workaholic hours at the home office in London.
Then, the wheels fall off.
What appears at first to be a random instance of misfortune—the husband of James and Anne's housekeeper is struck and fatally injured by a passing car on the road near the Mannings' home—turns into the catalyst for a chain of mysteries that leave the obsessive-compulsive James reeling. Was Anne somehow involved in the fatal accident? Is her involvement related to her covert relationship with laconic playboy Bill Bule (Rupert Everett, My Best Friend's Wedding)? Did Maggie the housekeeper (Linda Bassett, Calendar Girls) witness the event that led to her husband's death, and can she identify the guilty party? Will the detective on the case, Inspector Marshall (David Harewood), unravel the twisted skein of facts, thus ruining the lives and reputations of all involved?
This much is certain: If you peel back the skin of a perfect life, you'll find imperfection festering underneath.
As he did in his Oscar-laurelled screenplay for Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes again spins a mystery in which the solution to the puzzle is less important than the effects of the central event on the lives of those it impacts. Indeed, in Separate Lies, the mystery is—as observant viewers will note—never disclosed with certainty in every detail; even at the film's end, we know all of the basic parameters of the unfortunate event, but can't be 100% sure we know who really did what, due to the unreliability of each witness. Not that it matters—the real story here is the tenuous relationship between truth and self-preservation, between personal honor and the grander concept of justice.
Fellowes's carefully crafted film challenges us to ask ourselves a question we studiously avoid to the degree that we can: Is doing the right thing always the right thing to do? Most of us find it easy to be judgmental when we have the luxury of detachment—when those involved in a situation aren't ourselves, or those we love. But would we always make the morally correct decision when our own self-interest is on the line? Could you send an offender to prison if that offender was the person who shared your bed?
The characters in Separate Lies make fitting pawns for this dilemma, because we see clearly that none of them has ever had to confront such an agonizing ethical choice before. James Manning has risen to his present position through his marshaling of minutia, controlling everything around him from the precise timing of his breakfast egg to his submissive wife's comings and goings. Anne feels shackled by her corseted existence as the model spouse, but lacks the will to rebel openly against James's dominating presence until circumstance forces her hand. Layabout rich snot Bill Bule wafts through life drolly unconcerned with the effect he has on others, seeking only to avoid genuine emotion, or anything else—manual labor, for example—that might cause him to get dirty or sweaty. Even Maggie the cleaning woman, whose husband's death occasions all the sturm und drang, has her own closetful of skeletons she would prefer to keep hidden.
The film that inserts us into the lives of these people at a critical moment would compel us far more were it not for the fact that none of these high-toned folk are especially sympathetic. On the other hand, we don't sense that they are despicably vile. They are simply so wrapped up in their own personal issues that we, the audience, can't feel much for them at all—they're too busy feeling for themselves to let us inside. It's not difficult to understand their motivations, but embracing them is another plate of kippers altogether. The end result is a story that drags the viewer toward no certain resolution, accompanied by a cast of characters who don't make the journey either very interesting or very engaging. Separate Lies is a silkily woven tale, skillfully acted and beautifully filmed, that leaves us with nothing but apathy at its bittersweet conclusion.
A shame, really, considering the talent of the people involved. Each of the key actors is as solid here as he or she has been anywhere else. The picture is so effectively cast, in fact, that if one acquired the script without having seen the film, and having read it through, were then told that Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, and Rupert Everett would play the principals, the natural response would be, "Well, of course—who else?" For his part, first-time director Fellowes understands his narrative (drawn from a novel by Nigel Balchin) so intimately that he guides both plot and actors with the sure hand of an experienced professional. It's just that the story is so joyless, and the characters so irredeemably internalized, that the obvious fervor of the contributors never explodes off the screen.
As much as I applauded the craft on display here, I couldn't help glancing repeatedly at my watch, and wishing the whole business would hurry up and finish—not a sterling recommendation for a movie whose running time clocks a scant 86 minutes. For a film whose promotional blurb promises "a sexy thriller with shocking twists," Separate Lies turns out not to be the least bit sexy, or shocking, or thrilling. (The affair at the crux of the film is hardly even there—Anne and Bill might as well be bridge partners rather than lovers, for as little as we see of them together.) It's well made, to be sure, but to what end?
The good people at Fox have done their best with this lifeless slice of trifle. Both the visual and aural presentations of Separate Lies on this disc are first-rate. The picture—accessible in both anamorphic widescreen and full frame versions on opposite sides of the disc—displays consistent sharpness and natural tone, with only the barest hint of edge enhancement to quibble about. The sound is likewise realistic and remarkably full for a film that's really little but dialogue. Composer Stanislas Syrewicz's spare, haunting score is effectively positioned in the mix, never overpowering.
Writer-director Fellowes answers the call to deliver a surprisingly passionate commentary about his directorial debut. (It's regrettable that the film itself reflects so little of the fiery enthusiasm Fellowes clearly had for his project.) His remarks are insightful and interesting, if a tad self-congratulatory in spots, and make a fine complement to the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a single exchange of emotional dialogue between Tom Wilkinson's James and Emily Watson's Anne, at the moment in which she reveals to him her heretofore secret infidelity with roguish Bill, that is so wonderfully scripted by Fellowes and so flawlessly carried off by Watson and Wilkinson that it makes the rest of the picture seem cold and callow in comparison. I would have nominated all three for Academy Awards for this one scene alone, had the rest of the film leapt up to the same lofty level. But, tragically, one stellar scene does not a great film make.
So much to appreciate, yet so little to love—that's this reviewer's capsule assessment of Separate Lies. Fans of the performers can savor another example of these fine actors at the peak of their abilities, and lovers of traditional English mystery may find the knotty plotline to their liking. But the whole business plays out as bland and cool as yesterday's leftover crumpets. A quick toasting for heat and a smear of jam for flavor might have helped.
I believe the Judge was about to say "Guilty," but he appears to have wandered off. Anyone for cricket?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Julian Fellowes
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