3 stars (out of four)
From Agatha Christie's country manor mysteries to Woody Allen's upcoming "Match Point," tales of infidelity and murder among the British upper classes have often been among that country's prize exportsso much so it sometimes seems that infidelity and murder are the specialties of the whole British class system. Julian Fellowes, bona fide member of the English upper crust and the writer of Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," probably knows the truth (and fiction) of the matter as well as anybody, and he gives us part of it in his mixed but affecting directorial debut, "Separate Lies."
In "Lies," Tom Wilkinson, the masterly actor of "In the Bedroom," plays James Manning, a wealthy British lawyer who discovers that his perfect life is built on a swamp of immorality and lies. In quick succession, early in the film, this almost smugly self-confident power-broker discovers that his beautiful and seemingly perfect wife, Anne (Emily Watson), is cheating on him with a local aristocrat, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett) and also that the adulterous couple may be involved in a hit-and-run-slaying. As successive shocks keep hitting James, Wilkinson shows us how vulnerable this supposedly strong, smart man really is, how fragile his moral world and how illusory his happiness.
Wilkinson, a wonderful wily actor in movies like "Girl With a Pearl Earring," is often great at semi-tragic roles like this too ("In the Bedroom"). And he's almost great in "Separate Lies," though the filmtasteful, bright and well-made as it isdoesn't give him enough support. Wilkinson's thick body and slightly predatory features supply a fine contrast to the sophistication of his delivery and the churning emotions he suggests beneath a surface of calm.
He gives this conflicted quality to the role of James, and it's a powerful performance for at least two thirds of the movie, until the curious ending blunts and weakens some of that power.
Watson, at the same time, memorably draws a portrait of a seemingly good but vulnerable wife, a beautiful, ashamed women in the throes of her passion for the sexy, diffident Bill Bule (Everett), son of the local nabob, Lord Rawston (John Neville).
Since princely cad Bill seems to feel entitlement to any pleasure, treating Anne with casual self-indulgence and James with seeming bored contempt, we can really feel the hell into which James falls every time he sees them. It's a hell that grows as complex as the hit-and-run that killed the husband of James' cleaning lady, Maggie (Linda Bassett), and is being doggedly investigated by the relentless local police detective (David Harewood).
Fellowes based "Separate Lies" on Nigel Balchin's novel "A Way Through the Woods"a 1951 book that has the infidelity drama but not the crime storyand perhaps that's why the ending seems so inorganic and slightly clumsy. The stoic, civilized emotions at the end and the redemption of a character or two sit oddly on a tale with an actual killing, one that so ruthlessly exposes the inequity of the British class system.
"Gosford Park" benefited from Altman's genius for improvisation and rewriting on the set; "Separate Lies," by contrast, looks like the text was followed religiously, if not always morally. So it's not surprising that "Separate Lies" seems better written than directed. And the writing isn't always up to the actors, who all give the kind of expert, theatrically ingenious performances that often seem director-proof.
At the top of the list in "Lies" is Wilkinson, as masterful as the script will let him be as the fallen, false giant James. Just behind him are Watson, as the good wife lit by sexual fires, and Everett, as the remote bounder who lights them. Fellowes is lucky to have them.
Directed and written by Julian Fellowes; based on the novel "A Way Through the Wood" by Nigel Balchin; photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Alex Mackie, Martin Walsh; production designed by Alison Riva; music by Stanislas Syrewicz; executive producer Paul Smith; produced by Christian Colson, Steven Clark-Hall. A 20th Century Fox release from Fox Searchlight Pictures; opens Friday. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: R (for language, including some sexual references.)
James Manning - Tom Wilkinson
Anne Manning - Emily Watson
Bill Bule - Rupert Everett
Maggie - Linda Bassett
Inspector Marshall - David Harewood