The plot of Separate Lies is a fairly straightforward thriller. There is a love triangle, a coverup, and a too-nosy detective. But writer/director Julian Fellowes does practically everything right and practically nothing wrong, so calling it “straightforward” seems a disservice.
R for language, sexual references
The setting is England. James (Tom Wilkins) is a well-to-do solicitor with a house in London and one in the country. His wife Anne (Emily Watson) is a good British wife. They have no kids, but she sees to the houses and supports her husband at work and at home. Perhaps he’s too demanding of her, but they live their lives with the pluck and comfort of their station.
It’s not giving anything away to say that an accident has happened on the night of a party they were throwing. The husband of their housekeeper was sideswiped by a Range Rover, thrown off his bicycle, and killed. The only witness, a somewhat unreliable one, is the wife of the victim, who was some distance away when the accident happened.
Earlier, James noticed a scratch on the Range Rover of their bratty, spoiled blueblood neighbor Bill (Rupert Everett). As a solicitor and as a decent human being, he insists on confronting Bill about the coincidence. They meet for lunch in London. Over dessert, James wrangles a halfhearted confession from Bill.
The Moral High Ground
Spoilers ahead: skip to the next section to remain in the dark.
Back at home, James tells Anne what he learned, determined to go to the police. She’s not so sure. “What good will it do?” she asks. There’s no bringing back the dead. Why ruin another life?
It’s simply the right thing to do, he replies. Besides, think of the widow. Doesn’t she deserve justice?
In perhaps the movie’s best scene, Anne, chopping vegetables for their posh lunch, gets ever more agitated. She finally confesses to having been in the Range Rover, and more. By the time she’s forced to confess everything, lunch is ruined.
James, having carefully built his moral high ground on a solid foundation of decency and reason, tumbles down into the valley of moral relativism inhabited by the likes of Bill and, he now realizes, his own wife.
Writing and Acting
If you read the last section, you may realize just how sharp the writing is. Like great literature, it is rich with irony and repeated themes, but it is never contrived. It’s always the characters who drive the action. The plot never feels scripted by a writer trying to get to the next scene on the checklist.
Of course, the characters are only as believable as the actors behind them. In this case, our two leads are excellent. In an early scene, James mentions James Mason in passing; it’s an apt parallel. Both Wilkins and Mason (star of Lolita and Georgy Girl) have a certain British, gentlemanly charm, and yet both convey great love, heartbreak and sadness behind it. Fellowes and Wilkins may even be consciously trying to tie in to Mason’s pathos by adopting the name “James” for the Anne’s husband.
Watson has often been very good, but she may not have been this good since her breakout performance in Breaking the Waves. It helps that her character is more mature than some of her previous roles. With maturity comes complexity, and Watson is up to the task.
Everett doesn’t have much of a job to do. Bill is a lazy, bored, royal snob, a role he could play in his sleep. Of more interest are the characters of Bill’s father, played by John Neville, and the housekeeper, played by Linda Bassett. Both roles are written as plausible characters and as contributors to the larger themes of the work. Both actors add their skill to the movie’s overall excellence.
Return in December
There are details in cinematography, music, and dialog that reveal a mature, intelligent, and in-control filmmaker. The only thing missing is a really original plot. But considering how well-crafted everything else is, it’s something I’m willing to forego.
It’s possible that I just happened to like Separate Lies because of a coincidence (the movie takes place in Paris, London, and the English countryside, and it’s the first movie I saw after a vacation to those places).
But I’m more inclined to give credit to Fellowes, Wilkins, Watson, and the rest of the cast and crew. Let’s hope we’ll be seeing some of them again in December when thoughts turn in earnest to bests of the year.