There are several defining characteristics of British films that, aside from obvious differences in speech and dialect, set them apart from American productions taken from the same genre. British dramas, for example, tend to exercise more control than American dramas in their generally slow, more deliberate treatments of plots and storylines. While American television and cinema thrive off of an immediate revelation of conflict, typical of any “Law and Order” series drama, British films such as “Separate Lies” (Fox Searchlight Pictures) take on a different approach.
“Separate Lies” is an extremely well-executed directorial debut for screenwriter Julian Fellows. Fellows is by no means a stranger to the British film circle, having earned recognition in 2001 for crafting the screenplay for the widely acclaimed Brit-film “Gosford Park.” Fortunately, with the decision to try out the directorial role for “Separate Lies,” he proves himself worthy of the experiment.
The story for “Separate Lies” is taken from the novel “A Way Through the Wood,” by Nigel Balchin, which translates very well to the screen.
Like “Gosford Park,” “Separate Lies” features a very sophisticated array of characters with unique personalities who, despite impeccable appearances and speech, are about to be challenged by everyday circumstances. At the beginning of the film we gain a brief insight into this looming trauma, while we watch as an unidentified man riding a bicycle gets abruptly sided off the road by a vehicle. The rest of the film is then built around investigating the details of this incident.
Immediately following this scene, we enter the idyllic estate belonging to James and Anne Manning (Tom Winkinson and Emily Watson). When James, a solicitor, is working well into the night or traveling the country to various conferences, his wife Anne (Emily Watson) has more time on her hands to contemplate the flailing state of their relationship. One can only assume that she is headed towards a messy, extramarital affair with a dashing younger man named William Bule (Rupert Everett), who comes from a wealthy family and is introduced to Anne at a picnic by friends. The film then returns to the bicyclist incident from the beginning of the film with a woman named Maggie (Linda Bassett), wife of the victim. The rest of the film becomes a quest to discover the true culprit of the accident.
This is a film that does not offer high drama or energetic acting sequences. Wilkinson, Watson and even Everett’s characters are extremely constrained, almost to the point of being under acted. Nevertheless, “Separate Lies” proves that a slow and deliberate unraveling of a story can be done successfully with skillful camera work, score and seamless editing of scenes. Fellows’ seems to prove that this story is not one that is solely about discovering who is to blame; rather, it is very much an ethical quest for answers. At one point in the film, Maggie, the witness to the fatal accident of her husband, remarks, “sometimes keeping silent is like telling a lie.” “Separate Lies” proves that there is great potential for suspense with a hushed and deliberate approach to filmmaking.
The film is now playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.