Everyone admits to everything in Separate Lies, writer-director Julian Fellowes latest sardonic, upper-crust whodunit. Set in a privileged corner of the English countryside where the rich and powerful spend their ample free time playing cricket and drinking themselves silly, this is the kind of mystery that opens with a man dying on the side of the road, and two confessions 15 minutes later. The suspense comes from trying to figure out whos covering up for whom, and why. Theft, manslaughter, perjury, adultery you name it, its in the script, although the twists and turns are served up in a subdued style thats more like Masterpiece Theater than Agatha Christie. The level of tension may be a little too low, but Fellowes skillful handling of dialogue and actors is in full flourish.
The trouble begins when a reckless Range Rover piloted by caddish local playboy Bill (Rupert Everett) sideswipes a maids husband on a country road and leaves him for dead. While the maids employers staid businessman James (Tom Wilkinson) and his bored wife Anne (Emily Watson) mourn the loss, Bill shows little or no sympathy, more concerned about repairing that big dent in his Range Rovers fender. When pressed by James, Bill confesses, remorseless; but then Anne claims she was the one behind the wheel, as shes been sleeping with Bill for weeks. Faced with the prospect of sending his wife and not his nemesis to jail, James starts lying, both to himself and to a dedicated detective (David Harewood) who starts poking around the couples palatial manor. But which adulterer is telling the truth, and why is the other playing mind games?
Hitchcock wouldve produced a masterpiece with material like this. Bitter, surprising and full of wit, Fellowes writing leaves no loose ends and offers lines worthy of Ingrid Bergman or Cary Grant. When told, Dont punish yourself, the enigmatic Anne simply replies, Somebodys got to. Everett works his natural smarminess to good effect, and Watson is brilliantly, unpredictably vulnerable.
Unfortunately, Fellowes who won an Oscar for his brilliant Gosford Park script a few years ago is still finding his way as a director. At times, he struggles to find the right tone for the material, stumbling when he tries to switch from the devilishly funny scenes to the dead serious ones. Also, he intentionally downplays the glamour and allure of the super-rich; a seductive master like Hitchcock wouldve lured us into their lifestyle in order to fully expose its emptiness. When a filmmaker like Fellowes can juggle so many tantalizing themes, motivations and betrayals, its all the more disappointing if he happens to drop one or two of them.
At the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.