The only sequence in Separate Lies that could be dubbed an action scene occurs in the first minute of the film, when a biker is killed by a Range Rover on a posh country road in England. But who was the victim? Who was in the car? And why didn't they stop?
Writer and director Julian Fellowes, having penned the award-winning screenplay for Gosford Park, is no stranger to murder mysteries set among the affluent British. But Separate Lies is a far different beast; those aforementioned captivating questions are all answered in the busy first act, negating any semblance of mystery and instead focusing on the psychological destruction the event wreaks on a (seemingly) happily married upper-crust couple. Think of it as Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities as interpreted by Claude Chabrol.
Even before news of the accident yields shattering results, the marriage of successful solicitor James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife, Anne (Emily Watson), is shaken up by the appearance of suave Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a recent divorcé whose family used to employ the Mannings' devoted maid, Maggie (Linda Bassett). Bill's sudden interest in Anne catalyzes a characteristic skirmish between husband and wife; Anne is sweet but absent-mined, and James is cold and hypercritical of her faults. Anne is unusually offended when James shows only moderate concern at the announcement that the biker was, in fact, Maggie's husband. This causes their marital rift to grow even wider.
I won't give away any more of the delectable plot, which favors scorching melodrama and emotional verisimilitude over the serpentine twists of most crime thrillers. Skeletons from the past are unearthed, infidelities are committed and the worst is brought out in a couple who, we soon realize, were living in a world of grim suffocation under the guise of normality before the film-opening tragedy occurred. James shows his true colors by letting sexual politics get in the way of doing the right thing, while Anne shows hers by continuing a sordid affair in the wake of bloodshed.
This may seem like a bleak ride, but the performances are so compelling that it's impossible to look away. Watson conveys an intriguing combination of frailty and blunt honesty, but the film mostly belongs to Wilkinson. Its middle section is largely an observation of his character's disintegration, which is so devastatingly observed it practically renders the shady manslaughter plot irrelevant.
A third-act contrivance and unnecessary resolution may tie things up a bit too neatly, but even these flaws don't dilute from the grand pathos of the unraveling marriage and Wilkinson's powerhouse portrayal of the classic tragic hero.