`Separate Lies': Getting at the truth

Acting trio shines in flawed whodunit

MovieReview B-

October 21, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The plot of a 90-minute murder-mystery usually functions like a trap. The more desperate the characters are to squirm out of it, the more anxious the audience will be to witness the good guy's success or the bad guy's failure.

Separate Lies, the writing-directing debut by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for writing Robert Altman's Gosford Park), tries to catch us up in a relationship drama with a murder-mystery hook. When a fatal hit-and-run occurs outside the country estate of London-based international lawyer Tom Wilkinson and his wife, Emily Watson, the lawyer suspects that the culprit is Rupert Everett, the local aristocratic rotter. Fellowes sets the screen for a tale of subterfuge in the upper crust, a la Agatha Christie.

The movie proves to be more peculiar - and, alas, less satisfying - than its setup. Murder-mystery motifs continue to pile up as these three sweat under the gaze of an intrepid inspector (David Harewood). But the facts of the accidental killing pale before incidental emotions.

Good-guy/bad-guy notions skid out like a bald tire. The rigid righteousness of one character seems unattractive compared to the carefree trippiness of another. One spouse's misplaced ardor and the other's dogged fidelity play out with equal sympathy.

The actors are up to the film's paradoxical challenges. Everett has never been more wittily cutting, Watson more transparently passionate, or Wilkinson more moving in his depiction of a buttoned-up man's painful progress toward self-knowledge.

Too bad Fellowes, working from a Nigel Balchin novel, A Walk Through the Wood, fails to transfer the suspense from a conventional whodunit to a tale of who-loves-whom. The filmmaker deploys the usual tricks of tension to tease an audience out of its reflex expectations and into a realm of unpredictable feelings, banking on the actors to hold us with their virtuosity.

Unfortunately, even a dream ensemble needs scenes shaped to showcase their unique power, not hand-me-downs from Hitchcock (the kitchen argument from Sabotage) or from the entire oeuvre of Claude Chabrol. Instead of an intriguing moral maze, Fellowes has settled for miasma.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Separate Lies (Fox Searchlight)

Starring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett.

Directed by Julian Fellowes.

Rated R.

Time 87 minutes

Review B-

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