- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

Although my memories of the late 1960s always need refreshing, I believe that screenwriter Julian Fellowes has contributed to the feebleness of his debut directing project by reaching back for class-baiting and guilt-tripping touches that seemed stilted when Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter insinuated them in “Accident” almost 40 years ago.

A hit-and-run accident conspires to puncture the bubble of contentment and security that is briefly ascribed to Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson as vulnerable spouses James and Anne Manning. Londoners who can also afford a weekend place in Buckinghamshire, they appear a lock for estrangement as soon as Jim is revealed as a workaholic solicitor and Anne a restless housewife. Restless to the point of desperate trifling with a dissolute aristocrat, Bill Buell (a lounging, dark-eyed, uncharismatic Rupert Everett), who occupies the most fashionable mansion in their stretch of countryside.

Preoccupied at the office, Jim misses the party Anne is hosting back in the shire. Belatedly, he discovers that the husband of their housekeeper, Maggie (Linda Bassett), has been fatally sideswiped by an unknown motorist while riding his bicycle. Jim has reason to suspect Buell. It gets worse. Anne’s nerves snap while slicing vegetables for a salad. Losing all control, she shatters her lovely platter, a preamble to revealing that she is not only the lover of the despicable Buell, but also the driver of the hit-and-run vehicle, a Range Rover. It belongs to her consort, but she was driving, and drunk, when the calamity occurred.

The remainder of this woebegone tale, derived from a novel titled “A Way Through the Woods,” observes the inability or unwillingness of all incriminated parties to make a clean breast of ill fortune, misjudgment and cowardice. An inspector calls but fails to crack the conspiracy. In fact, the cover-up has a longer shelf life than any weakly contrived psychological melodrama can afford.

Mr. Fellowes, who manipulated this kind of thing cleverly in the late Edwardian setting of “Gosford Park,” seems to imagine that he’s discovered a rare breed of moral ambiguity in the inertia of the Mannings. To his discredit, no ambiguities are ever discernible. The melodramatic progression is all downhill and injurious to any compassionate or forgiving impulse.

The failure to dignify the behavior of the principal characters when faced with legal jeopardy and personal disgrace is also aggravated by some glaring technical slip-ups. The most glaring: The hit-and-run victim is struck by the left side of the car in every depiction of the accident, but marks of the collision are attributed to the right side. This confusion suggests that Mr. Fellowes needs to get those left-right issues resolved before he returns to the cutting room.

*1/2

TITLE: “Separate Lies”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; thematic preoccupation with social depravity)

CREDITS: Directed by Julian Fellowes. Screenplay by Mr. Fellowes, based on the novel “A Way Through the Woods” by Nigel Balchin. Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Production design by Alison Riva. Costume design by Michele Clapton. Music by Stanislaus Syrewicz.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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