“Separate Lies” is a grownup drama about grownup people having grownup problems. The way they handle those problems, however, is childlike: They lie. You may think you’re a mature adult with a well-developed sense of right and wrong, but when everything hits the fan, your first inclination to weasel out of it, isn’t it?
The film is written and directed by Julian Fellowes, adapting Nigel Balchin’s novel. Fellowes previously won an Oscar for writing “Gosford Park,” another film about upper-class British types who unwisely ignore their hired help. Here we have James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), a prickly, didactic London solicitor who shares a country home with Anne (Emily Watson), his self-conscious wife. He loves her, but his demeanor is critical and she feels inadequate for him. When she encounters Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), the laid-back scion of a local millionaire, recently moved back to town, the seeds for deception are sown.
Yes, they have an affair, but that is not what drives the action. Instead, an old man — the husband of the Mannings’ housekeeper Maggie (Linda Bassett) — is struck and killed by a passing car. Bill’s car has a scratch on it. James, no fan of the youthful, frivolous Bill even before he learns of the affair, insists that Bill ought to be dealt with by the law if he is guilty. Then Anne reveals some pertinent information, and suddenly James discovers that his ethics are situational.
The three central figures in the story are motivated by guilt, shame, pride, jealousy and even moralism, occasionally trying to do what’s right while other times trying to redefine “rightness” so they can still be said to be pursuing it. Other times, they blatantly disregard their consciences and do what is easiest. But, as movies about murders and cover-ups have always taught us, getting away with lying is often harder and more nerve-racking than simply telling the truth.
There is often a comic element to the story, stemming from the characters’ upper-class manners being juxtaposed with their seedy situation. The way Anne tells James she’s been sleeping with Bill is as lowbrow as it gets, and a stark contrast to the stuffy Britishness that normally governs their behavior. Hearing a wealthy solicitor’s wife use gutter language is like hearing the Queen do hip-hop. You wonder how she even LEARNED those words, let alone felt confident saying them.
Everett plays a rakish playboy better than almost anyone, with an infectious combination of insouciance and idleness. If his infrequent appearance in films these days is truly, as has been speculated, because too few directors are willing to cast an openly gay actor in straight roles, then it’s a shame. (Come on, Hollywood. There’s hardly a difference between British and gay, and you can’t tell just by watching Everett whether he’s one or both.)
Wilkinson and Watson bear the heaviest emotional loads, however, and they do so with practiced excellence, two reliable actors in roles that are familiar to them. They do well in upper-class situations, and it’s a painful pleasure to see them humbled by something as low as a housekeeper’s dead husband.
Fellowes has had a long career as an actor and writer, but this is the first time he has directed. What he does in that regard is not spectacular, but neither is it amateurish. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a director is to find (or write) a solid screenplay, cast excellent actors, and let those elements work their sorcery together.
B (1 hr., 25 min.; )