‘Separate Lies’ asks a lot of hard questions, but only answers some of them

Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett in 'Separate Lies'
Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett in ‘Separate Lies’

This year’s roster of Best Actor nominees is indeed impressive, but it would have been more so had it included Tom Wilkinson. Certainly the actor’s smoldering work in 2005’s little-seen Separate Liesis among the most revelatory work of the year.

In the film – the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Gosford Park scripter Julian Fellowes, Wilkinson plays James Manning, a successful, well-respected attorney who seems to have it all. His word slowly unravels, however, when the husband of his cleaning lady becomes the victim of a hit-and-run. Eventually, neighbor Bill Bule (Rupert Everett) becomes a suspect in the matter, and as the greater truth is revealed, James begins to suspect that his loyal wife Anne (Emily Watson) might not be so loyal after all.

Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson in 'Separate Lies'
Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson in ‘Separate Lies’

At every turn, James finds himself at a crossroads, as Lies is all about the choices we make to protect the ones we love – and preserve our own happiness. James has his own secrets as well, and as Fellowes’ film unravels, he makes clear the damage such secrecy can do.

All three members of this triangle prove to be masters at this subterfuge. And Fellowes excels at homing in on the dramatic richness of domestic discord. In one scene, as Anne delivers some unsettling news to James, Watson methodically chops vegetables, her knife punctuating the scene with all the strength of a guillotine.

What is interesting is Anne’s relationship with Bill. He has no expectations of her and makes no judgments, and this no-strings arrangement is exactly the antidote to Anne’s relationship with James. While the actions of the three may cause some damage, ultimately it’s what they tell each other – first the lies, then the more piercing truths – that hurt the most.

So what does keep a marriage going? According to one scene, Fellowes posits that the answer may indeed be children. As James’ marriage disintegrates, he sees a child in the park and considers how his marriage may have been strengthened had he and Anne had children to provide a greater bond. Fellowes has created a movie that asks many tough questions about both guilt and blame, and toughest of all, he provides few answers.

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