Dir/scr: IsabelCoixet. 2005. Sp-UK. 112mins.

Produced once more by Pedro Almodovar's El Deseooutfit, Isabel Coixet's second English-language feature proves itself to be adeeply felt work that is much stronger on emotions than it is on form.

Initially affecting,her story of a recluse tending a temporarily blinded man eventually becomesrepetitive before stating its case too late in the day.

A moving performancefrom Sarah Polley, who appeared in Coixet's My Life Without Me, shouldshepherd The Secret Life Of Words towards other festivals following itsworld premiere at Venice (Horizons).

Commercially, itshould enjoy limited appeal among mainstream female audiences if it is marketedas a love story rather than the profound work its title implies - althoughword-of-mouth may be hampered by its soft middle section.

Hanna Amiran(Polley) is first introduced as a factory worker who keeps to herself and isfiercely protective of her solitude. On the rare occasions she does speak it iswith a distinct, if not easily identifiable, foreign accent.

One day sheoverhears someone looking to hire a nurse and takes the job. Soon she is flownto an oil rig to tend Josef (Robbins), who has been seriously injured whiletrying to save a colleague during a deck fire.

Most of the film,except for the prologue and epilogue, takes place on the rig itself,temporarily shut after the accident and manned only by a handful of people. Allare self-styled outcasts who feel unease every time their feet touch terrafirma.

Each character hasone or two scenes to set their background, but Coixet keeps the focus firmly onthe relationship between Hanna and Josef, and the strange intimacy graduallyestablished between them.

Josef is the firstto unload secrets before Hanna, near the film's conclusion, lifts the veil ofmystery surrounding her past and throw a different light on her stubborn surlyconduct.

It is at this pointthat The Secret Life of Words, which until then seems to beconcentrating on how the lonely cope with the world around them, acquires adifferent dimension.

Attention nowswitches to the trauma that Holocaust survivors have endured for the last 70years, including the guilt of survivors who cannot articulate even a fractionof their suffering.

But this theme is sodisproportionate to anything before that it dwarfs lighter touches - such asthe goose that roams freely around the rig - or serious issues - like Josef'sguilt at an affair he had with his best friend's wife.

The early stages ofthe film had explored similar territory as covered in Breaking The Waves,The English Patient or The Sea Inside. But the finale itself owesmore to Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, while never developing the necessarymaterial for such a task.

It is a pity, sinceCoixet uses both image and sound proficiently. Jean-Pierre Larrieu's dark,moody compositions are never less than impressive and the soundtracks, whichincludes Tom Waits, David Byrne, Juliette Greco and Blood, Sweat & Tears,bridges the film's chapters.

Tim Robbins offers asomewhat wooden performance that shows too little inspiration. It falls shortwhen stood next to Polley's admirably affecting turn, which equals that in MyLife Without Me and is the one steady constant that keeps the picturetogether from beginning to end. That even she does not quite manage to handlethe script's inconsistent structure is not for lack of trying.

Julie Christie'sauthority as an established film presence proves more important than herthespian talents.

Production companies
El Deseo

International sales
Focus International

Esther Garcia

Jean-Pierre Larrieu

Irene Blecua

Production design
Pierre-Fraqncois Limbosch

Main cast
Sarah Polley
Tim Robbins
Javier Camara
Sverre Anker Ousdal
Steven Mackintosh
Eddie Marsan
Daniel Mays
Julie Christie