Though it runs a scant 87 minutes, Julian Fellowes’ directorial debut feels longer. You might attribute this indelicate effect to the occasional luxurious tracking shots, to denote manor-born-style leisure, so calculated and pretentious. Or you might attribute it to the detailed, frequently mesmerizing performances by Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson as a couple whose marriage unravels rather horrendously. Or again, you might consider this slow, even plodding appearance as a result of Separate Lies‘ melodramatic fervor: minute for minute, the film has more angst, betrayal, and guilt than most daytime soaps muster in a year.
The fact that much of this emotional turmoil is repressed under upper-class Brit propriety only seems to intensify the sensationalism. Adapted from Nigel Balchin’s novel A Way Through the Wood, the movie picks at the seeming underside of moneyed or otherwise privileged folks. Workaholic James Manning (whose last name seems meaningful, at least as a verb, and who is played by Wilkinson) doesn’t realize how much he’s been neglecting his wife Anne (Emily Watson). But you don’t know this when the movie starts.
Your knowledge at any given point is key to the film’s structure, as your sympathies shift with your points of identification. The film’s starting action is anonymous and unsettling. In a matter of seconds and a quick combination of close and long shots, a heavy black sedan flies along a country road, slams into a bicyclist and zooms away. Subsequent scenes reveal that the bicyclist, an aging handyman, has been fatally injured. It turns out that his wife, Maggie (Linda Bassett), works as a housekeeper for the Mannings, and as Anne takes a special interest in her well-being, she also keeps track of the husband’s slipping away, culminating in a recriminatory phone call with James, who can’t understand her sudden teary investment in Maggie’s personal life.
Anne is motivated by guilt, as tends to happen in melodrama. Specifically, she’s been having an affair with a local wealthy bad boy, the obnoxiously named Bill Bule (Rupert Everett). While this doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you, James is stunned, especially since he’s just confronted Bill that afternoon, believing that he’s the owner of the big black bicyclist-killing vehicle. While Bill appears an entirely superior sort — not unlike James’ own exterior — he delivers several of the film’s dryly funny lines, including, at James’ insistence that he was the driver, “Oh well, have it your own way, I did it.”
That James can’t see any similarity between himself and Bill is only part of his blindness. And though Separate Lies is most squarely focused through James’ limited view, you also see enough about him — as he gazed on by restless Anne or his devoted secretary — that you’re more able to anticipate his future than he is. He doesn’t begin to guess the obvious, for example, that Anne was involved in the accident, and so his terrier-like pursuit of Bill’s culpability, and his tipping of the local inspectors, leads trouble directly back to her. On this point, Anne waxes philosophical in a self-damning sort of way: “I’ve done wrong, I ought to be punished.”
That her punishment will affect others doesn’t occur to Anne until James points it out, and even then, she remains so undone by her own sense of guilt that she convinces both her men — James and Bill — to go along with her decision. Her remove may also be a function of James’ long-term willful blindness and newfound comprehension; colliding, these frameworks make Anne seem unbelievable. As the movie takes his point of view, for the most part, Anne is a cipher, sometimes maddening and sometimes enticing.
When Anne makes her initial confession (of the affair), she and James stand apart in the kitchen; he’s just come from a lunch with Bill, believing he’s triumphed in some queer way by getting him to admit the car accident. And now, watching Anne prepare a platter of food, he’s made aware that his life isn’t all that he supposed. More important, Anne is now (and perhaps ever was) a stranger to him, her face part miserable and part elated by speaking her betrayal. Telling her story — for what seems the first time in her marriage — she asserts that Bill doesn’t really “mean” anything to her. because he doesn’t make demands or judge her, as James does in little, incessant ways. Precisely because he’s a lout, Bill makes her feel oddly liberated, if not precisely beloved.
And she can’t give him up. (The most convincing reason for this is Everett’s performance, at least for the film’s first half, before he’s sideswiped by a ruthlessly melodramatic plot turn.) Though Anne insists that she will leave Bill, she keeps going back, and so she and James agree to part, at least until a local inspector starts nosing around. Here again the threesome’s emotional dimensions shift, as all are entangled in an array of lies and unable to get quite what they want. Add a fatal illness, gossipy neighbors, Maggie’s deathless loyalty to her employer, and Bill’s patronizing father, and the mix turns positively rowdy. Except that the movie never seems to move.