In the years after World War II, the constant complaint from serious film critics was that British films were dominated by middle-class values and that the working class was patronizing. The most frequently cited case was the brief encounter, in which the stiff upper lip affair between married celia johnson and her would-be doctor lover trevor howard was taken seriously, while the parallel courtship between buffet lady the station and the cheeky doorman was treated as comic relief.
this has changed radically since then, with the middle classes considered fit only for period films or tv sitcoms, and ken loach and mike leigh’s studies of working class life used as sticks to beat slash movies. ivory merchants.
julian fellowes takes on this mainstream trend. as an actor, he seems doomed to play upper-middle-class characters. As a writer, he has chosen to specialize in a medium he knows well, especially with his Oscar-winning screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, a brilliant piece of writing that, set in an upper-class British context of the 1930s, brings together the rule by renoir du jeu and a crime novel of agatha christie’s country house.
He has now made a successful writing-directorial debut with Separate Lies, an updated version of Nigel Balchin’s 1951 novel A Path Through the Woods. Unfairly neglected, Balchin was a Cambridge-educated scientist who brought to his fiction and screenplays an insider knowledge of business, Whitehall and the civil service that rivaled that of CP Snow; he was also a writer sharper and less presumptuous than snow.
The narrator and central character of Separate Lies is James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), a successful 50-something City of London solicitor with a Regency terrace townhouse and a newly acquired period place in a village. Buckingham where his young wife of about 10 years, Anne (Emily Watson), spends most of her time. All seems to be going well in his carefully arranged life until one afternoon there is a hit-and-run accident in town while he is in London, the victim being the husband of the family’s cleaning lady.
the hit and run accident has been a useful dramatic device employed by dickens in a tale of two cities, fitzgerald in the great gatsby, and in a handful of recent films, 21 grams among them, as a source of blame, injustice social and revenge. In separate lies, suspicion gradually falls on James’s wife and the Honorable Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), an upper-class divorcee who has become his mistress. they are a family trio: the accommodating older husband, the young wife in search of romance and sexual adventure, and the cold, uncaring scoundrel. But here they are given a new lease on life when they are joined in a series of moral dilemmas of the kind that Walter Scott defined in his oft-quoted couplet, ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When we first practice to deceive.’ The offense hides and drags an angry James. no one can act alone, either to confront guilt or assert self-righteousness, without involving others. In addition, the moral and social blackmail also involves the victim’s wife (Linda Bassett) in the conspiracy.
this aspect of the film takes us to inspector morse country, but inspector marshall in separate lies is black, and the british social system closes ranks against him. how do you find life in buckingham, inspector? Anne asks cheerfully at their first meeting. ‘Well, I was born here,’ she replies.
The whole point of the film is that the cover-up is simply an extreme example of the way the characters deceive themselves and each other, and that their manners, language, and social codes are part of the deception. Yet in a sense, James, Anne, and Bill gain a new understanding of themselves from the experience, without radically changing, and their remorse becomes subsumed into selfless love.
given the conventional material, separate lies is a film that always surprises in its ethical and emotional ideas, and rings consistently true, with three excellent performances, rupert everett is a version of the role he played as ruth ellis’ callous lover in Dance. with a stranger.
the dialogue of the companions is excellent. he’s good at the way traditionally understated middle-class language has assimilated contemporary obscenities in a curiously controlled and civilized way. Also, in collaboration with his production designer Alison Riva and costume designer Michele Clapton, he knows very well where people live and how they dress.
Its straightforward storytelling avoids unnecessary exposition and long wide shots, relying on the actors to tell us about themselves. he subjects them to patient, scrutinizing close-ups and they never let him down. separate lies packs a lot into its 86 minutes.