Tom Wilkinson as James Manning
Emily Watson as Anne Manning
Rupert Everett as William Bule
Linda Bassett as Maggie
John Neville as Rawston
Hermione Norris as Priscilla
In Separate Lies, Tom Wilkinson plays James, a high-powered London lawyer whose seemingly ideal existence is thrown into chaos when his stay-at-home wife gets embroiled in an extramarital affair. And a murder.
In films like In the Bedroom and The Full Monty, Wilkinson has proved himself an actor of extreme sympathy, able to navigate his deeply human characters through a painful landscape. As James, he inhabits the center of Separate Lies and lends the film a dose of humanity and sobriety that is seriously lacking in the film as a whole. The film opens with Wilkinson delivering a somber monologue: “No life is perfect, though it may seem to be. Secrets and discontent lie beneath the smoothest surface. In this, as in many things, my life was no exception.” This clichéd speech is the closest the film, an odd hybrid of marital drama and thriller, ever comes to being profound.
What lies under the surface of James’ seemingly ideal existence is a casual love affair between his wife, Anne (Emily Watson) and a wealthy and crass playboy, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), who is far closer in age to Watson than her onscreen spouse. James learns of his wife’s infidelity while trying to make sense of a hit-and-run accident that fatally injured an elderly neighbor, on the eve of a cocktail party that Anne gave at their country home in James’ absence. James suspects the obnoxious and snide Bill, who drove Anne to the train station in a scratched car on the night of the said accident. Over lunch, Bill admits to driving the car and James insists on his coming clean to the police. When James arrives home to tell Anne what he’s learnt, Anne, who’s stood up for Bill until now, makes a double confession: Bill is her lover; and she was driving Bill’s car when the accident occurred. James’ way of dealing with the criminal situation is to deter Anne from turning herself in and to work with Bill to create alibis. For the moment, all is quiet and the threesome hope that the crime will be soon forgotten. James takes Anne on holiday to try and mend their ruptured marriage. Anne is candid and tells James that she feels as through she’s constantly being judged with him. She’s in bed with Bill because he’s so easy to be with. With reluctance, James allows Anne to continue her affair in the hopes that she’s eventually come back to him. When Anne disappears to Paris with Bill for a week, James succumbs to a little temptation from his secretary. When Anne and Bill return, their crime comes back to haunt them.
Separate Lies is the directorial debut of Julian Fellowes, best known for Oscar-winning screenplay to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Fellowes also contributed the screenplay, which is inspired by Nigel Balchin’s novel A Way Through the Woods, adding the criminal subplot. Yet the genre that served him so well in Gosford Park is resistant to his marital intrigue. On his own, Fellowes lets the suspense diffuse. While Gosford Park boasted so many wonderfully drawn characters, in Separate Lies, James is the only one who comes across as three-dimensional. Watson, a remarkably talented actress in her own right, is unable to lend dignity and respect to her role of a transgressive wife. She does not for a moment gain our sympathy, which is reserved for James exclusively. Everett obviously enjoys playing a crass philanderer, but his Bill never rises above stereotype. And the dialogue is unforgivable lame at times. Early on, James and Anne are talking about the victim of the hit-and-run. “People don’t always die,” says James. “Yes they do,” Anne replies. And later on in the confession scene, Anne keeps defending Bill, while James explains why he ought to turn himself in. “F*ck Bill,” James cries. To this Anne softly responds, “That’s exactly the thing, I do f*ck Bill.” For the most part, Separate Lies is as predicable and unexciting as that line.