Separate Lies


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Infidelity amongst country townies...

I know what you're thinking. Who cares about nouveau riches poseurs and middle-aged toffs with dull wives and fat labradors?

He goes up to town to work in a soul-draining office, where a perfectly programmed secretary watches with laser intensity for a chink in his emotional armour, and she stays at home preparing an elaborate meal, because there's nothing else to do except play golf, or other people's husbands.

The English class system is nothing if not predictable. Boys who were sacked from Eton for rogering the house maid in the linen cupboard, or selling home grown ganja to oiks from Windsor behind the pavvy on the 4th of June, end up just like their dads, in fatuous City jobs, being paid buckets of money for waffling the waff with effortless charm, while underpeople from less privileged backgrounds do the preparatory work.

County life is blood sports, dinner parties, dodgy marriages, horsy fumbles at hunt balls, dysfunctional orgasms, gymkhanas and debutantes at dawn.

Julian Fellowes writes about this world with acidic accuracy. He avoids the temptation of sending it up. He's not Richard Curtis. He's Alan Ayckbourn, with a silver spoon in the runny honey. His humour is observational and his ear needle sharp. These people disguise their feelings, if they have any, so that what they say does not reflect what they mean. Language becomes another layer of deception. They live with lies, like nannies live with secrets. Truth lacks finesse; it is also vulgar.

James (Tom Wilkinson) and Anne (Emily Watson) epitomise the estate agent's dream in a picture postcard village in Buckinghamshire, while keeping their house in London. He's a company solicitor and she's bored. They came to the country to get away from the town. It's what you do when you reach a certain stage on the social climb. They can afford it; they have no children.

James is six degrees of separation from the warm heart of a dreamer. When the telephone rings, he shudders. Anne, ivory blonde and naturally flirtatious, is on the brink of bursting, that moment in a wife's life when she feels the need to do something outrageous, simply to break the monotony and stir the blood before it atrophies from lack of stimulation. Her eyes are naughty/amusing. She's looking for danger and finds it in the languid form of Bill Bhule (Rupert Everett), son of the resident Burke's Peerage, who lives in a stately pile at the edge of the village.

The film runs deeper than passion's cruel barb, because not only is this the story of a marriage in free fall, it is also a crime scene. The husband of James and Anne's "daily" is knocked off his bicycle by a speeding Land Rover on the evening of Anne's cocktail party and dies in hospital. James suspects Bill and wants the police to arrest him. Anne knows different. Suddenly the simplicity of revenge, accusation and retribution becomes entwined in loyalty, protection and fear.

Fellowes keeps things tight. As in the theatre, much of the action takes place off screen. The cast is small, but exquisite, concentrating the mind on the subtleties of nuance.

"I fail every test you set me," Anne tells James. "And you keep on setting them."

She exposes his need for control, as if everything she does is being judged, beautifully illustrated when he cracks open his egg at breakfast and it's too soft and, of course, he can't let it go.

"Don't punish yourself," he says later, when conscience is crushing her.

"Somebody's got to," she says, already martyred by guilt.

The writing is so good, you want to steal it. The acting is even better. Wilkinson and Watson surpass themselves. Only Everett feels out of place. In an attempt to make Bill the living embodiment of upper-class arrogance, he appears frozen.

What assumes the guise of a chamber piece gains stature and respect. This is not a satire on country house infidelity. It is finely and beautifully tuned to the meaning of love.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2005
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A breaking marriage exposes the meaning of love and an unsolved crime.
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Read more Separate Lies reviews:

The Exile ***

Director: Julian Fellowes

Writer: Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin

Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett, Linda Bassett, Hermione Norris, John Warnaby, John Neville, Richenda Carey, David Harewood, Jeremy Child

Year: 2005

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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