Dir: Julian Fellowes. UK2005. 85mins.
Actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-novelistJulian Fellowes adds another string to his bow with Separate Lies, anauspicious directorial debut that produces a staunchly old-fashioned butnonetheless taut and adult marital drama.
Based on a 1951 novel byNigel Balchin, the film applies insightful psychological realism to tensionsbetween well-heeled middle-class adults. As such it is the sort of story thataudiences are used to seeing in American settings and fare such as In TheBedroom and We Don't Live Here Any More.
Fox Searchlight initiallyreleases the film - completed a year ago but held back for the awards season -in New York on Sept 16, followed by Los Angeles. There, top-notch,gravitas-laden performances and a deceptively cosy English setting should helpit notch up prestige.
In the UK it may prove aslightly trickier sell for some audiences, who may find its Home Countiesmilieu too redolent of upmarket quality TV drama. But this third feature fromCelador Films - which also produced Dirty Pretty Things and TheDescent - should nevertheless command healthy respect and, quite possibly,a BAFTA nomination or two among the cast. Separate Lies will have its UKpremiere at the London Film Festival on Oct 24 as the Mayor's Gala Screening.
In this updated version ofBalchin's 1950s story, Tom Wilkinson plays James Manning, a high-flyingsolicitor committed to his demanding job, who commutes between London and thebucolic Buckinghamshire house he shares with younger wife Anne (Emily Watson).
Bored with her decoroushome-bound existence, Anne is intrigued by the arrival of divorced toff WilliamBule (Everett). James fails to see what's going on under his nose, until thehusband of his cleaner (Bassett) is killed in a hit-and-run accident, bringingthe Mannings into uneasy complicity with Bule.
The film'supper-middle-class English setting is less high-flown than the one thatFellowes portrayed in his script for Robert Altman's Gosford Park, andthe tone is considerably more sombre than either that film or his writing for VanityFair and PG Wodehouse adaptation Piccadilly Jim.
Separate Lies is effective in depicting the moral impasse in whichits privileged characters - particularly the morally upright, if rather priggishJames - are caught.
Fellowes - on this evidencea sensitive director of actors - has an eye for banal gestures that betray thefeelings that people won't confess to: one of the key revelations is presagedby Watson's character nervously preparing a salad.
The story's brittleemotional triangle lends the film an edge of emotional and moral seriousnessthat recalls Neil Jordan's The End Of The Affair, while the overalltone, and the scrutiny of bourgeois complacency, carry distinct echoes ofmid-1960s Joseph Losey.
Wilkinson excels as thecareworn, vulnerable husband, while Watson crackles with conflicted, sensualnerviness in one of her best performances in a while. Linda Bassett and veteranJohn Neville provide sensitive support, although Everett is slightly toooddball to ring true, his jaded toff coming across as callous to the point ofsociopathic.
Fellowes maintains tensionadmirably through the first hour, with its element of mystery narrative, thoughthere is a distinct loss of dramatic momentum towards the end.
It's moot whether Fellowesentirely pulls off the transposition of Balchin's story to the present. Theportrayal of class differences occasionally retains a slightly archaic ring,although it could be argued that this adds a certain teasing undercurrent,suggesting that some parts of British society have changed less in five decadesthan one might expect.
UK Film Council
From A Way Through the Wood by Nigel Balchin