The British actor Tom Wilkinson's astonishing performance anchors SEPARATE LIES, a nuanced adult drama packed with moral dilemmas and existential questions. Julian Fellowes, who received an Academy Award for penning Robert Altman's GOSFORD PARK, makes his first foray into the director's chair with this sophisticated film, which centers around Wilkinson's repressed upper class lawyer James Manning.
A well-groomed British society couple, James and his lovely, polished wife Anne (BREAKING THE WAVE's Emily Watson) live that sort of perfectly presentable life that John Cheever has made a literary career out of exposing. Cloaked under a veil of politeness, manners, and ultimately, self-delusion, they are so far deep into enacting their roles that they come to believe them.
When their maid's husband is killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident in front of their vacation home, James immediately suspects that his dashing and suspicious neighborhood Bill Bule was behind the wheel. Upon telling Anne his intention to relay the hypothesis to the law, he receives some shocking news; Anne and Bill have been carrying out an affair for months, and they were both in the car as it turned into a tool of manslaughter.
These harsh facts that James is confronted with have the effect of years of psychotherapy; the man of perfection is suddenly aware of the morass of half-truths and societal pressures that have led him to this point in life. As a man whose work rests upon upholding the law, he now must face the difficult moral dilemma of either turning in his own wife for a horrific crime or keeping up appearances.
Based on Nigel Balchin's largely forgotten mid-century novel A WAY THROUGH THE WOOD, this is a movie that builds up its impact gradually and smoothly. Elegant and unobtrusive camerawork, a minimalist score, and performances of subtle and understated power add up to a story that is at once morality tale, social critique, and neo-noir mystery.