Separate Lies: Julian Fellowes Directorial Debut

Masterpiece Theater with an edge: Julian Fellowes’ directorial debut, “Separate Lies,” is an intimate chamber piece, made in the tradition of Merchant Ivory’s tasteful melodramas, with touches of Pinter (“Betrayal”) and Joseph Losey (“The Accident”) thrown in.

This three-handler tale, a sharp dissection of marriage, is enhanced by accurate, Oscar-caliber performances from Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson, as the married couple, but marred by a weak and lazy turn from Rupert Everett, who’s miscast as the outsider who scrupulously wrecks their union.

Thematically, “Separate Lies” resembles “Betrayal,” David Jones’ superior anatomy of marriage and friendship on the rocks, based on Harold Pinter’s Oscar-nominated screenplay and superbly acted by Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge, as the woman who comes between them.

At this phase, Fellowes, who won the 2001 Original Screenplay Oscar for Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” is a more astute writer than director; his inexperience behind the camera shows. While he gets strong performances from its central duo, his uneven direction drags, which is not a particularly good sign for a film whose running time is only 86 minutes.

Based on Niegl Belchin’s novel, which was called “A Way Through the Woods,” Fellowes structures his melodrama as a moral maze that encourages the audience to engage in shifting sympathies with each of the three characters. Rather than draw clear-cut distinctions between heroes and villains, Fellowes depict good people who do bad things, and bad people who do good things.

The story begins with a hit-and-run accident in the woods. We are then introduced to James and Anne Manning (Wilkinson and Watson), who are seemingly leading a comfy, even dream life together. The accident, in which the husband of their housekeeper gets hit, serves as impetus for throwing the characters into a state of imbalance and disequilibrium.

At first glance, the marriage of James and Anne seems picture-perfect. James is a wealthy and respected international lawyer; Anne is a bright and charming homemaker. They reside in a gorgeous country house and have another home in London. The Mannings enjoy a privileged and peaceful existence with few real worries. It therefore seems absurd that such an ideal and idyllic partnership could be torn apart by a single accident and a few tragic seconds.

Yet that’s precisely what happens. It all begins when the husband of the Manning’s cleaning lady is found near dead just down the road, the victim of a hit-and-run. At first, it seems to be a random accident, but soon James begins to suspect that their neighbor, the handsome, upper-crust Bill Bule (Everett), who’s just back from the U.S., might be to blame for what becomes a vehicular homicide.

As James and the police begin to probe what really happened, James is suddenly faced with the shocking reality that Bill and Anne might have been involved not only in the unreported crime, but with each other in a passionate, secretive affair. James’ shattering discovery is only the beginning of a suspenseful journey that takes twisting turns when James makes the difficult choice to lie in order to protect Anne. For her part, Anne has been lying to him all along about her relationship with Bill. And, in turn, Bill has his own devastating secret he is hiding from everyone.

With the police investigator on their heels, James, Anne, and Bill weave their own individual webs of deceits, each with his/her own complex personal agenda—until the truths that lie beneath the surface begin to emerge.

The Mannings lead a luxurious upper middle-class life, but their marital problems and moral dilemmas resonate beyond their milieu, suggesting a more universal layer. Indeed, the Mannings’ problems are not peculiar to their privileged status. Viewers who have ever lost themselves in a relationship because it seemed easier than fight or break up, will understand the quandary that Anne faces when she falls for a scoundrel, Bill Bule.

D. H. Lawrence’s dictum, “Marriage is the sphinx riddle. Solve it, or be torn to bits, is the decree,” applies very well “Separate Lies,” a film about love, deceit, emotions, and morals. It demonstrates how when we lie, we think well only tell one lie, but you end up telling many more lies as we get embroiled in it further and further. The film is a story of making one bad choice in a moment of panic or crisis, and then follow it with many other bad choices–until there’s no way out–even if one then lives to regret the corrosive and destructive forces of their initial, unwise decision.

On the surface, “Separate Lies” concerns the tragic accident and the events leading to it. However, as writer and director, Fellowes has the smarts to dig deeper and offer an absorbing look into the workings of one modern, very British, marriage. Each of the characters has his/her POV, which, under certain circumstances, can be understood, if not entirely justified. Each character could be seen as right and wrong, and the way we relate to the characters would ultimately depend on our value system and code of ethics. “Separate Lies” is open and ambiguous enough to allow for different, even contradictory, interpretations.

At one point, James says: “Were all wreckers, we make choices. We make them for the best, most loving reasons, and we don’t see the damage we cause.” Indeed, no matter what side you take, Fellowes’ point, that lies are counterproductive and reproductive, comes across, the notion that one “small” lie, told in a guilty hurry, soon spawns others until a sticky and dishonest web engulfs the teller and those around them.

“Separate Lies” is a reasonably taut and suspenseful mystery-drama about a modern-day love triangle, bisected by a single criminal act. The movie examines the effects of deception on a marriage and the personalities of its partners, the dangerous lies reveal devastating truths about who they are and what they want from one another.

Main problem is, we have seen this story before, and “Separate Lives” is not provocative enough to stir debate or discussion; there’s a sense of deja vu. The novel, first published in 1951, follows the tale of a bewildered husband who permits his wife to carry on an affair in the hopes that she might return to him. When published, the book was highly provocative–the London Evening Standard called it, “a brilliant study of adultery and corrupted ideals.” But what was shocking in 1951 is no longer shocking fifty years later.

Fellowes uses the novel as a starting point, from which he goes further in his own direction, bringing the story into a contemporary setting and adding elements of an unwinding crime drama as well as his own trademark of fascination with the social manners of the rich and privileged classes, which was the theme of “Gosford Park.”

The story is about people that ought to be happy but they are not, which is a more universal theme that goes beyond the upper-crust milieu. The characters exist in a kind of safety bubble, and their concept of the perfect life is suddenly shattered, making them realize that they are not walking on terra firma anymore, that their personal and social orders are fragile and can quickly evaporate away.

Fellowes works in the tradition of masterpiece theater and the restrained, tasteful style of the Merchant-Ivory collaboration, a feeling enhanced by the fact that his movie is shot by two-time Oscar winner, Tony Pierce-Roberts, who worked on Merchant-Ivory’s best films, “Howards End” and “A Room With a View.”

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