Exercising once again the genial/lethal qualities he brought to his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Gosford Park,” Julian Fellowes makes his debut as a writer-director with “Separate Lies,” an oh-so-British psychological domestic drama. Fans of Merchant and Ivory, Harold Pinter or Agatha Christie will find satisfaction here, as will devotees of Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, who will see the thesps limn among their best performances. Modest B.O. looms on the Anglo-friendly specialized circuit.
Tale opens with a hit-and-run accident in which a man on a bicycle is run off the road by a car and left for dead.
Nearby, the marriage of James and Anne Manning (Wilkinson, Watson) is on the verge of collapse. Fellowes captures the idyllic if petrified elegance of their domestic existence with cruel perfection — homes in both whitewashed London and the country; after-work cricket for him, comfortable boredom for her.
Anne has grown impatient with her older husband, but when she expresses too eager an interest in a young heir dressed in cricket whites, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), it’s all too apparent trouble lies ahead.
But trouble wears two hats in Fellowes’ meticulously wrought script. James suspects the newly arrived Bill, an insufferably insouciant, near Euro-trash parody, is involved in the hit-and-run. But while Bill knows who committed the accident and is even willing to take the blame when confronted, someone else was in the car as well.
With Tony Pierce-Roberts behind the camera, “Separate Lies” looks rich, the gray tones of London like pewter. Sound is used as a gentle guide through the remarkable civility of James and Anne’s dissolution, their cover-up of a crime and the tensions of a three-way love/conspiracy.
On his directorial outing, Fellowes shows he either has the instincts of Charles Laughton or has absorbed well the lessons of Hitchcock: Anne, preparing dinner while admitting to James her tryst, wields a well-honed kitchen knife with anxious abandon against unoffending parsley, cucumber and avocado.
Fellowes uses the scene to create the kind of white-knuckle stress his characters are feeling. When a punch does get thrown, it’s so antithetical to the nature of the story and the people that it’s more shocking than most mass murders in B actioners.
In fact, it’s the gentleness with which James eventually accepts his fate, and the way Anne resigns herself to hers, that makes the story so engrossing, despite its ambling pace.
Wilkinson, whose increased visibility over the last few years has meant good things for moviegoers, is marvelous to watch; physically, he shrinks from an over-confident London solicitor to a broken cuckold. Watson, never more open or less weird, creates a memorable character in Anne, a woman who knows what she wants.
With “Separate Lies,” Fellowes has made a truly adult film — not because of its content or themes, but because it knows that real drama often lies in the accepted and unspoken realms of life.