In the movies, thoroughly imagined works of naturalism are as rare as truly devastating-consolatory works of tragedy. A superficially naturalistic handling is so common, however, that romance, comedy, and melodrama are more often than not discussed in terms appropriate to naturalism. People commonly talk about the heroes of romance as if they, too, were people, when, in truth, a romance hero’s solely meaningful motivation is to champion good against evil. Although such evil is often cloaked in a contemporary issue, it needn’t be, and almost never is, naturalistically depicted. The structure and aims of romance thus make that genre readily translatable from context to context (country, period, topic).
By contrast, a naturalistic story is rooted in its specific, material context and reaches for a far more modest and scrupulously craftsmanlike end: What would these recognizable characters plausibly do in this situation that they have believably got themselves into? Other genres can be handled naturalistically, and naturalism can incorporate elements of other genres, but when a work is as palpably built up from acute observation as Julian Fellowes’s Separate Lies (or John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004) or Bo Goldman and Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon (1982)), you’re responding to what naturalism brings to narrative. You can feel your brain being called to attend to every word, gesture, interaction, object, setting, for the significance they carry in themselves.
Fellowes has updated Nigel Balchin‘s 1950 novel A Way Through the Wood: James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), a successful London solicitor, suspects that Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a nobleman who lives near Manning’s country getaway, is the unknown person who struck the husband of Manning’s housekeeper Maggie (Linda Bassett) with his Land Rover. It’s a bit sticky because at the time of the accident Bule would have been en route to a party given by Manning’s wife Anne (Emily Watson). But James, man of principle, gets Bule to admit his responsibility over lunch and then presses him to turn himself into the police. (Principle does not, however, suggest to James that he need visit the fatally wounded man in the hospital; Anne has to drag him.) James adopts an unbending moral stance when he tells Anne about his lunch with Bule, but in this conversation with his wife he finds out details about the accident that he would rather not have known. High-minded as James is—a “boy scout,” in Bule’s words—he immediately reverses course and wants to cover the incident up. But it’s too late: he has stirred up Anne’s moral sensibilities, though in a less straightforward way than he envisioned, and the cracks in their marriage become fissures.
Separate Lies is, first of all, a completely convincing portrait of a functioning comfortless marriage. Anne has always felt she can’t measure up to James’s expectations, and we can see, as Anne herself can, that she is not particularly accomplished at running his households. She might fare better but James’s supervision undermines her confidence, and then when she inevitably falls short he steps in and “manages” her as if she were an employee. (One much less efficient than his secretary.) Anne may in some social sense be raised in importance by having a powerful husband who can afford choice property, but her spirit is lowered by his nitpicking. In addition, James doesn’t particularly want to socialize after working all day all week, which too often puts Anne in the position of having no one but her hypercritical husband for company.
Though Anne is the one who gets James, Bule, and herself in all the trouble, and is unfaithful besides, she’s the only one of the three who has a plain and natural desire to tell the truth. She’s isn’t “practical,” in the sense of being inured to moral compromise; she isn’t concerned about picking and choosing among the consequences of her actions. James is the one who at first insists on doing the right thing, until doing so means unpleasant consequences for himself. Even Bule, so morally lax he’s nearly horizontal—literally, in Everett’s amusingly marble-mouthed performance—doesn’t try to hide his base motives nearly as much as James ends up doing. James is the wronged party, innocent of injurious behavior, and yet all the hypocrisy ends up on his side. There’s nothing objectively wrong with James and yet it’s nearly impossible to warm to him, which offers a much cleaner experience of identification with character than is usual. (There’s no complacency in Fellowes’s writing of the character or in Wilkinson’s amazing performance.) Finally, the trouble resolves itself not through James’s maneuvering but through a remarkable act of generosity in recompense for Anne’s much-evidenced compassion. As Maggie, Bassett is flawless in her few, key scenes leading up to this turn. (Bassett also delivers one of the movie’s most memorable replies, to James—”There’s a Londoner talking!”—which underlines the importance of context here.)
Structurally, with James uncovering more of the mystery than he can assimilate happily, Separate Lies bears a resemblance to Oedipus Rex, though when James learns the truth he is not pressed forward through agony to universal revelation to anything like the same degree. Fellowes keeps everything on a human scale. And though the crux of the story and the depiction of the upper-class country set bears some resemblance to both F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh‘s A Handful of Dust, the movie doesn’t set its fallible characters up as representatives of some larger spiritual problem. Anne, for her part, is not like Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, who is measured against the protagonist’s impossible, romantic ideal. Nor is she like Waugh’s Brenda Last, or later Virginia Troy in the Sword of Honour Trilogy, women who allegorically represent the spiritual blindness of the men they marry and betray. (Virginia, pregnant and broke and hoping to snag her Catholic ex-husband in London in late 1943, complains to him, “I’ve had a dreary war so far. I almost wish I’d stayed in America. It all seemed such fun at first, but it didn’t last.”)
On the contrary, Emily Watson’s strength as Anne is her ordinariness, both in her moral slips and her need to confess them. Anne is not a great embattled heroine but a woman whose husband expects something out of the ordinary that just isn’t in her. The movie doesn’t justify her romantic escapades on this basis, or ask us to share her ecstasies, but neither does it villainize her. Watson inspiredly gives Anne both childlike docility and childlike secretiveness; her pug-nosed prettiness is somehow incomplete. Then, as the character comes more and more into the open, Watson gives you a sense of some instinctive interplay between instability and stability in Anne. It’s always much clearer what she’s moving away from than what she’s moving towards; she doesn’t understand what she’s doing herself, any more than her husband does. The writing, and Watson’s performance, are so pointed and precise they achieve a small miracle: Anne is believable as a character because her motives elude you, as the motives of the confounding people you meet in life elude you. By the end, however, it appears that the interconnected disasters she set off, plus one she’s not responsible for, have surprisingly helped her grow up.
Wilkinson has the more understandable character. James is a highly civilized and rational man—that’s why he criticizes Anne, because he wants her to do better. Like many another overeducated fool, he imagines that life can be brought up to the mark by application of principles and relentless monitoring. At the same time, although James believes he’s reacting to what other people have set in motion, it all seems to land in his lap. He thus suffers in confusion, because he can’t grasp the problem, though all his habits of problem-solving would be useless even if he could. (They are, in fact, central to the problem.) Is there anything more difficult than negotiating with yourself to want something less that you want a lot?
Wilkinson shows enormous power as James, but it’s scaled to a high-priced corporate attorney. Again, the precision, the refusal to overstate the magnitude of the characters and situations, is immaculate without being fussy or limiting. This is full-bodied acting without the self-important excess of an actor overreaching for the tragic. Wilkinson does have the saturnine bulk of actors such as Albert Finney and Danny Aiello, particularly when he’s drunk and bitter, but the heaviness of spirit is all James’s. Wilkinson effects as translucent a representation of turbid emotions as you could ask for. And though he is not showing off, his range is stunning. In that brief, glowering drunk scene, for instance, you hear reverberations of the legendary male voices of the English theater. And at the other end of the scale, when Anne hopefully says that not all cancer victims die, and James replies out of his newly reduced expectations, “Yes, they do,” Wilkinson’s morbidity is so wittily understated the entire audience laughed out loud.
This is Fellowes’s directorial debut, and it’s hard to believe this textured, supple drama is the work of the man who wrote the scripts for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) and Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004). Vanity Fair, which turns Thackeray’s irony into feminist romance, is among the worst botches of literary genre in movie history. As for Gosford Park, the murder mystery it’s built around trivializes its pretensions to being a masters-and-servants epic (the weak, anachronistic theatrical in-jokes about the American actor researching his role in a Charlie Chan picture don’t help), and its view of those relationships is dismally narrow. The difference among Maggie’s relationships with the three main characters in Separate Lies shows what’s missing from Gosford Park—the sense that while rigid class lines may separate the English upper classes and their servants, they nonetheless live on terms of intimacy and there is, of course, a wide range of responses within that system. The fundamentally humorless, melodramatic-socialist view of class in Gosford Park is like English country life glimpsed through an iron curtain. (By shaping the miserable revelation of abuse and exploitation to the contrivances of a detective story, Fellowes’s script misses the wallop of the mistress-and-servant relationship handled naturalistically by the Goncourts in Germinie Lacerteux.)
There are certain gaps in the storytelling in Separate Lies. It isn’t necessarily clear, for example, why Anne married James in the first place, though we see enough to base speculation on (and naturalism is the one genre in which it can make sense to talk about the characters’ lives outside what we’re told and shown as if they were people). You could also say that James’s final transition to acceptance, while not implausible, isn’t generated by any action that we see. But these are nothings compared to Fellowes’s accomplishment. The material is strictly commonplace—the makings of an episode of a TV detective series—which is always a pitfall for recreations of middle-class life. But Fellowes is so committed to the artistic means of naturalism, and so judicious, that his work is absorbing in a way that movies of broader scope almost never are.
A bit of catnip: Rupert Everett is highly entertaining here despite whatever it is he paid to have done to his face. Click here for before-and-after photos.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.