In Separate Lies, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson give extraordinarily deft, lived-in performances as an upper-class British couple locked in a marriage that offers plenty of security and comfort, but next to no excitement or romance. The film's early scenes establish the familiar contours of a relationship that long ago lost its mystery and wonder, setting the stage for an act of betrayal that looses the fissures of discontent lurking just underneath the surface of a seemingly ideal marriage.
Adapted from Nigel Balchin's novel by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who also makes his directorial debut, the film explores the messy aftermath of a hit-and-run accident that inadvertently leads to Wilkinson discovering his wife's infidelity with rakish, aristocratic cad Rupert Everett. Everett gets only a little screen time, but his wonderfully sneering, belligerent playboy proves the catalyst for both the film's plot and the dissolution of Wilkinson and Watson's marriage. Considering the role each plays in Watson's romantic life, it seems fitting that Everett gets most of the flashy, droll lines while the initially stolid Wilkinson gets the unsexy but more important task of carrying the film.
Separate Lies excels in the small-but-telling details, as when an offhanded comment causes years of simmering tension to explode in a single moment, calling into question all of Wilkinson's unthinking assumptions about his wife's happiness. In another scene, the look on Wilkinson's face as he lovingly caresses his estranged wife's scarf says more about the power of nostalgia and memory's tendency to amplify the good and minimize the bad in romantic relationships than pages of dialogue ever could. This material could easily have devolved into soap opera or romantic melodrama, but Wilkinson and Watson's superb, subtle performances lend it tremendous depth and gravity. For a film about marital discord, Separate Lies ends on a strangely hopeful note, as the shimmering but fraudulent façade of Wilkinson and Watson's marriage gives way to a messier, more complicated, but ultimately more honest and satisfying reality.