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. Modest B.O. looms on the Anglo-friendly specialized circuit.

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.

Separate Lies

U.K.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release from Fox Searchlight Pictures of a Celador Films, DNA Films presentation of a Celador Films production, in association with the U.K. Film Council and Film Four. Produced by Christian Colson, Steven Clark-Hall. Executive producer, Paul Smith. Directed, written by Julian Fellowes, based on the novel "A Way Through the Wood" by Nigel Balchin.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints), Tony Pierce-Roberts; editors, Alex Mackie, Martin Walsh; music, Stanislas Syrewicz; production designer, Alison Riva; art director; Niall Moroney; set decorator, Lee Sandales; costume designer, Michelle Clapton; sound, Chris Munro; supervising sound editors, Tom Sayers, Mark Heslop; visual effects supervisor, Alan Church; special effects coordinator, Piotr Styczen; stunt coordinators, Gary Connery, Dave Holland; assistant director, David Brown; casting, Janey Fothergill. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

James Manning - Tom Wilkinson Anne Manning - Emily Watson Bill Bule - Rupert Everett Maggie - Linda Bassett Inspector Marshall - David Harewood Lord Rawlston - John Neville Priscilla - Hermione Norris

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