There were only five or six of us at the Saturday afternoon screening of Separate Lies, and that's too bad, because this modest British film from the man who wrote Gosford Park packs a respectable wallop. Respectability is one of the movie's themes ' the need to keep up appearances while your marriage crumbles, then dissolves around you. And there's also something in there about the true nature of love, the little imperfections we must accept lest they turn into big imperfections. But the wallop comes from the series of decisions that are made to cover up a loved one's involvement in a hit-and-run accident. The director, Julian Fellowes, has described the movie as "a moral maze" ' a moral maze, I might add, with no way out.
James (Tom Wilkinson) and Anne (Emily Watson) Manning seem happy enough. They have a flat in London and quite a nice spread just outside of London. But James, a solicitor, works too hard, and Anne has to pass the time one way or another, so she starts up an affair with Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), an aristocratically bored neighbor. And James might never find out about it if the two lovebirds didn't clip a bicyclist on their way to a party. To complicate matters, the bicyclist was the husband of the Mannings' housekeeper, who once worked for the Bules, where she was fired for stealing. Anne wants to go to the police. Bill wants to sit around being aristocratically bored. (Everett excels at this.) And James wants his head to stop spinning.
Adapted from a 1951 novel by Nigel Balchin, Separate Lies has added the bit about the hit-and-run accident, and one can imagine a cozy domestic drama about adults committing adultery. But there's nothing like a little manslaughter to liven things up, and you can almost feel the vise tighten as James and Anne try to wriggle free of their marital and legal obligations. Wilkinson, as extraordinarily ordinary as ever, creates an indelible portrait of a man who's a bit of a stuffed shirt but has just had the stuffing knocked out of him. And Watson is nearly as effective as a woman who was too unhappy to realize how bored she was. That these two have been living separate lives ' okay, separate lies ' seems to come as a surprise to both of them.