Separate Lies, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), is about how lies beget lies and how a seemingly perfect life can unravel in the blink of an eye. Adapted from the novel A Way Through the Wood, by English writer Nigel Balchin, the film probably works better on a "British" level -- that is, the issue of class distinction, arguably the underlying theme throughout the movie, plays an even greater role across the pond than it does in America.
James and Anne Manning (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) seem blissfully contented. He is a respected and highly paid solicitor; she is his charming and attentive wife. Childless, albeit not by choice, they have a flat in London and a stunning home in the country. Being British, they are rather reserved emotionally, although James can get snappish when his domestic routine is disrupted. He is accustomed to things running like clockwork.
The film opens with a hit-and-run accident: An elderly man on a bicycle is knocked to the ground by a passing vehicle. The car does not stop. The victim, who dies in the hospital, turns out to be the husband of Maggie (Linda Bassett), the Mannings' house cleaner. The police open an investigation.
James begins to suspect that their neighbor, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), an arrogant, upper-class cad who has just returned from abroad, was responsible. He confronts Bill and urges him to turn himself in -- or else James will do it for him. Bill refuses, as if his privileged position in society somehow absolves him, if not from responsibility for the crime, at least from the necessity for punishment. After all, the dead man was a member of the working class.
Bill's cavalier attitude about the crime offends James, who has set very high standards not only for himself but for everybody around him. James is even more taken aback when Anne defends Bill, whom she barely knows. It is the first of many surprises to come, and it forces James and Anne to reexamine their priorities, their moral precepts and their marriage.
It's difficult to critique Separate Lies without potentially giving away significant portions of the plot. Suffice it to say that all of the characters will be more difficult to understand and to accept if you're not familiar with how deeply ingrained class-consciousness is in the fabric of British society. More than familiar, one must be on intimate terms with it. Otherwise, certain developments will feel quite ludicrous.
Yes, Separate Lies is also about how telling one falsehood inexorably leads to another, as well as what happens when characters fail to live up to the standards they have set for themselves and for others. But several of the emotional reactions and some of the dialogue is laughably melodramatic -- as if the film were, in fact, a parody of British stiff-upper-lipness.
That is clearly not what Fellowes intends, but the fact the thought does cross one's mind is damaging enough. (Another thought that may pop up: Just think what French director Claude Chabrol might have done with this material.) Those who can relate to the societal undercurrents at work will be much more accepting of the film and, no doubt, more emotionally involved.
Both Wilkinson and Watson are good -- when are they not? Everett, however, is too much of a narcissistic prick to be convincing. His Bill is shallow, rude and blasé, so utterly bored with the world around him that he can't be bothered with even the pretense of social niceties; forget any sense of noblesse oblige. He wears his snobbery and contempt like a smoking jacket that he never removes. He doesn't even go out of his way to be nice to Anne or James. The problem with Bill lies not only in the character itself, but in how Everett chooses to play him (or perhaps how Fellowes directs him) -- as a pompous, expressionless bore. He simply isn't credible.
When all is said and done, you'll likely find you have nowhere to place your sympathy, no character worth rooting for. Which isn't to say that characters have to be likable. But the natural sympathy one might feel for one or more of them is undone by a story that may well speak volumes to Brits, but that threatens to pass over American heads.