There may be no young actress today better at embodying a blend of wounded innocence and stoic pride than Sarah Polley. In "The Secret Life of Words," she has a part worthy of her gifts.
Polley drew international acclaim as an accident victim in Atom Egoyan's 1997 "The Sweet Hereafter." Since then, she has resolutely refused big-budget films -- and, despite her beauty, magazine covers -- instead choosing the hard-core indie path. That choice is evident in such offbeat films as Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing"; Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking"; and Isabel Coixet's spare, unsentimental "My Life Without Me," in which she played a woman who learns that she has two months to live.
Now Coixet and Polley have re-teamed for "The Secret Life of Words," which the director wrote expressly for her. Polley plays Hanna, a taciturn, enigmatic Eastern European woman who works in a factory in Britain. Though she's a model employee, Hanna has no friends and seems uncomfortable in her own skin. When her boss forces her to take a two-month vacation, she travels to Northern Ireland. Once there, she impulsively takes a job as an oil rig nurse where a fire has left a man critically injured.
When Hanna announces she has a background in nursing, we don't know if she is telling the truth; Coixet deliberately conceals almost every detail about Hanna's life, including her country of origin, how she lost hearing in one ear and why she is so profoundly sad and isolated.
That information will come out much later in her conversations with the patient, Josef (Tim Robbins), who has sustained severe burns and corneal damage that leaves him temporarily blind. At first, Hanna is chilly and clinical, refusing even to identify herself. But slowly she warms to Josef and, in a devastating monologue late in the film, reveals the source of her sadness. It's the emotional apex of the story, but the monologue can't fully compensate for the film's narrative disjointedness.
The parallels in the lead characters sound facile on paper but work better on film: Josef is confined by a bed; Hanna by her past. He's got visible burns and bruises; her trauma is internal. His vision is impaired; she's lost her hearing. She helps to heal him; he, in turn, aids in her emotional recovery.
Robbins is a fine and resourceful actor, but the tiny Polley towers over him here because she has given Hanna such a well-developed inner life. Josef, by contrast, isn't as fully realized. When Josef decides he's fallen for Hanna, the film takes a turn that strains credibility.
Far more convincing is Julie Christie, in a small but pivotal part as a social worker who played a key role in Hanna's past. There's also a superb soundtrack, with music from David Byrne and Tom Waits, among others.
"The Secret Life of Words." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.