Despite claims that it involves “moral decisions across societal divisions” (granted, I made that up, but it captures the gist and has a nice ring to it), this film is more about a crumbling marriage whose origins are themselves rather questionable. Questionable not in terms of legitimacy or inheritance, but with regard to why two so utterly different people could ever hope that anything more than a fleeting dalliance might exist between them. If that type of decision, hardly made in the blink of the eye, is beyond their capacities, then faulting them for poor hairpin maneuvers seems on our part to be a bit cruel. There is also a tragic incident involving the complicity of one member of the couple, unbeknownst to the other. The crime itself, detailed (if not entirely) to the audience, is more an act of carelessness than anything else, but it has grave ramifications for the well-to-do marriage of fiftyish James Manning (a superb Tom Wilkinson) and his significantly younger wife Anne (Emily Watson).
Anne usually passes her very wealthy and lonely time just outside London waiting on James, a barrister of inflated billable hours and reputation. As is customary in such screen characterizations, we are provided with a few short instances of James’s booming voice, terrifying presence, impeccable wardrobe, and general impatience with the world, as if it were costing him a considerable amount of restraint not to sue us all collectively for being stupid and inferior. We also know that such villains, if that is really the right word here, tend to be brought down to terra firma rather viciously. They are then given an opportunity to mend their ways, slow down their frenetic ambitions just a tad, and join the human race. There are so many films and books about this kinder, gentler un-Scrooging of a moneyed tyrant that I can only shudder at the future slew of fairy tales starring evil technocrats charmed by the batting eyelids of a sick child in an impoverished country. Not that they shouldn’t be charmed or, better, shamed by their gluttonous wealth in the face of such indigence. But that, more often than not, if there is a change it is either half-hearted or halfway. The latter scenario can be found in this film, where the titular character does in fact adopt a poor child in an economically underdeveloped country. He then writes him, however, morally complex letters that his new ward could not possibly understand, thereby cleansing his own conscience of its trouble. I suppose that’s better than nothing. In Separate Lies, we see the half-hearted method. And abiding by the old you-only-get-what-you-give mantra, the results are quite predictable.
What spurs this desire to fix what has long since been unfixable is the revelation by Anne that she is having an affair with neighbor Bill Bule (Rupert Everett) who, unlike James, doesn't work and, when in England, is usually out in the countryside. That would be bad enough if it weren’t for the additional detail that their flirting and irresponsible behavior may have inadvertently led to the death of someone they know. Of course, the victim is a member of the working class, accustomed to paying for the sins of their masters. The ensuing back-and-forth on culpability must have resonated much more strongly when the original novel was written in 1950s England than it does now, when class barriers have given way to ethnic walls. To reflect this development, director Julian Fellowes opts to change the ethnicity of the policeman investigating the death (David Harewood) from working class white to black, but middle class. Still, the inspector appeals to one of the working class characters late in the film with the words: “You don’t have to do this. You don’t owe them anything.” Whether this method is truly effective depends, I suspect, on whether you buy into the whole “societal divisions” motif, which seems a little affected at times. You can have tragedy in any society and at any income level; but the more privileged the characters are, the less sympathetic are we to their plight because most of humanity cannot afford to get bogged down in their petty neuroses.
Throughout the history of letters, it has always been difficult for me to sympathize with a king or queen in love or in doubt being consoled by one of their twenty lieutenants or handmaids. And for that reason it was hard to foster compassion for the separate fates of the “them,” here to mean James and Bill, because they represent the same selfishness albeit with different motivations. For Anne we feel a little more sympathy since she, as the epicenter of the story, has to make the majority of these moral decisions and Emily Watson’s acting could not be any better (I have said that, I think, about every single film of hers that I’ve seen). You may guess the twists coming at the end of the story, but one final wrinkle is particularly correct and saves the enterprise from collapsing under a few extra drops of sentimentality. The title itself, which plays on an omission of a letter from a well-worn phrase, is supposed to inspire us with pity for lovers split by fate. But the novel’s title, A way through the woods, as in the choices we make during the journey of our life within a forest dark, might be a little more appropriate.