Julian Fellowes won on Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay—for Separate Lies, I imagine he’ll be lucky if he’s invited to the Golden Globes. The two films are not entirely dissimilar: In spite of being set in a different time period and populated by considerably less luminaries of the British stage and screen, Separate Lies shares with Gosford Park a concern for people navigating a labyrinth of moral conundrums. But the weakest thing about Gosford Park was its screenplay, and Altman isn’t at the helm here to bandage the story’s bombshells or iron out Fellowes’s propensity for underscoring the obvious. Altman can make the mediocre seem exciting, but if Separate Lies is any indication, Fellowes’s talents as a director include making the exciting seem mundane.
Of course, Fellowes does seem to think that his schematic adaptation of Nigel Balchin’s A Way Through the Wood carries broad resonance, as if the events in the film could happen to anyone—at least to anyone who can afford an apartment in London and a house in the countryside. It’s there that James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) learns that a family acquaintance, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), was responsible for accidentally knocking a man to his death with his car, insisting Bill turn himself into the police. But after learning that his wife Anne (Emily Watson, upstaged in what should have been her best scene by a table-full of veggies) was in the car with Bill and having an affair with him, the trio conspires to keep Bill and Anne’s involvement in the crime from an investigating officer.
The acting is good and some individual scenes are quietly revelatory: an exchange on a mountaintop that allows Anne to bravely lay out the rationale for her adultery and, later, a scene in which Maggie (Linda Bassett), the wife of the story’s dead man, expresses to James her gratitude that Anne was able to forgive her criminal past. But Fellowes insists on mitigating earnestness with intrigue, and he does so in such a way that Maggie’s honesty becomes questionable. Is the woman telling the truth when she says she saw Bill’s car run over her husband or is she retaliating against Bill for aiding in her conviction for theft many years back? This view of the human visage is scarcely complex but, rather, aloof, unconcerned, and cynical.
Like atom bombs, Fellowes drops one surprise after another onto his character’s laps—except most of these blows telegraph themselves, and the writer-director seems to show little attention for the emotional fallout they leave behind. A director like Mike Leigh treats secrets and lies like scabs, picking at them prematurely and studying the still-unhealed wounds beneath. In Separate Lies, the bombshells don’t illuminate emotion—instead, they reveal optional and divergent paths of action his human targets can follow. For example, it’s not important per se if James is hurt to find out that Anne has cheated on him but if he will (or will not) use her adultery as an excuse to accept his secretary’s dinner invitation. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure as imagined by Jackie Collins.