The Fastidious and the Furious
Murder, Adultery, and Good Manners Collide in an Upper-Crust British Marriage
In the new Separate Lies, Emily Watson plays Anne, the kind of wife who appears glad to make the perfect hors d’oeuvres for her high-powered lawyer husband because that’s part of the contract that provides her with a posh London townhouse and a large Buckinghamshire country villa. On this particular evening she’s at the latter home, carefully slicing avocados as her husband James (Tom Wilkinson) fulminates about a neighbor who has committed a crime. Pushing a wisp of red hair away from her face, she smiles at him, wincing at the same time.
As James sputters that he’s going to turn in the ne’er-do-well, Anne’s silver knife chops a sprig of greens with unnecessary agitation. She quietly suggests that James might want to reconsider, for she was getting a ride with Bill (Rupert Everett), the neighbor, the evening of the crime. Confused by this, James reverts to an old habit, criticizing her housekeeping. “Surely, you’re not going to use that dish,” he says, patronizingly. He’s even more confused when his usually mousy wife picks up an ugly ceramic platter and smashes it on the kitchen counter.
It’s an old-fashioned scene from an old-fashioned British movie, the kind where upper-class types find a lifetime of reserve cracking under pressure and repressed feelings spurt out even as they desperately try to plaster the fissures. It’s a well-worn genre with a certain appeal, and Separate Lies is a fine example, thanks to its astute details—from the nervous wince to the jittery knife. Those details come from Julian Fellowes, the 2002 Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner for Gosford Park, making his directing debut.
As in Gosford Park, the main setting is a British country home, where the hired help—Anne’s maid Maggie (Linda Bassett) is the widow of the opening scene’s corpse—has different interests than the owners. Unlike that breezy Robert Altman period piece, Lies focuses on four main characters and one main story, sustaining a brooding tone throughout. Fellowes updated Nigel Balchin’s 1951 novel, A Way Through the Woods, to a present where adultery is less a scandal than an embarrassing example of ordinary failure. To compensate, he added a murder.
It begins like an Agatha Christie novel; an old man bicycles past a small English village’s neatly trimmed hedges, and before we know it a dead body is sprawled in the grass. It doesn’t take long, however, to know whodunit, and Lies shifts from a murder mystery into a meditation on the moral choices made by those who did it—choices not admirable but certainly plausible. It’s one thing to insist on moral absolutes when it’s a neighbor you hardly know who might go to prison. It’s quite another when it’s your wife who might wind up behind bars.
And if that wife is sleeping with another man, what can the husband do? At one point we find James sprawled on the couch; we know he’s drunk because his tie is askew. His only choices, he tells Anne as she walks in on him, are to be suicidal, bitter, or vengeful. He’s too rational, too British, to be suicidal or vengeful, so he has no choice but to be bitter. And in his plump, jowly face, that bitterness curls the corners of his mouth. There’s a fourth choice, of course: hopefulness that she’ll give it up and come home if only he keeps being nice enough. When she sends a message that they meet in a park, he reads and rereads the note under a conference table like a love-struck middle schooler.
This is a very prim movie. There is no on-screen sex or blood or showy cinematography. Like the characters and their homes, everything is very self-contained and tasteful. This reinforces the theme but puts all the weight on the four main actors. Fortunately, Fellowes elicits terrific performances from them all—especially Watson, whose telegraphic face usually gives everything away. She does a surprisingly good job holding back here—when she gives a matronly smile, you know something’s not right but can’t tell what.
If Wilkinson, Watson, and Bassett do the British thing of hiding dark feelings behind pleasantries, Everett does the American thing of hiding sentiment behind boorishness. His character is English but spent years in the U.S., which account for the rude and thoughtless things he says—and for the carefree recklessness that Anne finds so irresistible. He’s one of the most annoying characters in recent cinema—but that, too, is just a facade, and it eventually recedes to reveal yet more epiphanies in this subtle, rewarding movie.