Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Film: Separate Lies (R)

Emily Watson and Tom Wilkerson react to their troubled marriage in the most British ways possible in Separate Lies.

James Manning (Wilkerson) is a terribly impressive and successful lawyer in London — “terribly impressive” being the best way to describe a man who has achieved all sorts of upper-class success (house in the country, flat in London, nice cars, a maid) but still has an air of dissatisfaction about him. Anne (Watson), his wife, feels that much of that dissatisfaction and disapproval is directed at her. His questioning of a use of a certain plate, his exasperation at her tendency to displace things — these leave Anne open to the low-pressure charms of Bill Bule (Rupert Everett). Arrogant and disinterested, Bill nonetheless offers Anne just enough attention to get her into his bed.

Self-satisfied and relatively ignorant of Anne’s feelings, James might never have discovered the affair were it not for a car accident. Near their country home, the husband of the Mannings’ maid Maggie (Linda Bassett) is riding his bicycle on the side of the road. A car roaring down the country lane knocks him over and doesn’t stop. Later, they find out the man is dead and James begins to suspect that Bill might have something to do with it. When James rather pompously confronts Bill, Bill carelessly confesses. When James gets home and tells Anne, he’s surprised to learn that she already knows about the men’s conversation. The surprises continue to roll in as Anne tells James that she was with Bill when the accident took place — in fact, she was driving and they were on the way home from a pub and it wasn’t their first outing and, oh yes, they are sleeping together. James’ reaction, after rather politely throwing up, is an equally polite attempt to convince his wife to give up Bill and to convince her not to confess her crime.

And this much plot only gets us about a quarter into the movie. As a police investigation to the accident gets closer to the Bill-Anne-James trio, questions about Anne’s commitment to the marriage continue. And, though it could be argued that James is as much a part of his marriage’s problems as Anne, the heavy lifting of saving their relationship is all for her to work out.

Separate Lies is the kind of movie where, even if the characters don’t actually offer up tea as the solution to every problem, you know they’re thinking about it. Infidelity? Have some Earl Gray. Accidentally kill someone? How about some chamomile?  Dissatisfied with life? A little Darjeeling will make things better. It’s not that the Manning’s marriage isn’t important to them, it’s just that they haven’t found the right blend of lavender and jasmine to really make a go of it.

A prim little mystery where the story jerks from one plot point to the next, Separate Lies does give Wilkerson a chance to show off his superb acting chops. He’s a real treat to watch, even when the movie leaves his character’s personality a little thin. As the plot continues and he finds himself facing the bored affections of Bill, James becomes ever more aggravated that things are not working out as they should. And we quickly understand that “as they should” is James’ guiding principle.

Separate Lies never quite warms up to be the truly engrossing mystery/drama that the skeleton of its plot suggests it could be. But for all its politeness, it does offer moments of entertainment and some fun stabs at creating moral dilemmas.