THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS
Director/Screenwriter: Isabel Coixet
Executive Producers: Agustin Almodóvar, Jaume Roures
Producers: Esther Garcia
Cast: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Julie Christie, Javier Camara
Spain, 2005, 112 min.
*Hanna, a mysterious, introverted young nurse, accepts a job caring for perceptive, ironic Josef, a temporarily blind burn victim, on an oil rig in the Irish Sea. Nonoperational, the desolate rig is sparsely inhabited by a crew of loners, with only the roaring waves and a resident goose for distraction. As Hanna tends Josef's wounds, it soon becomes clear he's desperate to divulge secrets–as if words and transparency will free him from his sightless, immobile state. Meanwhile, Hanna remains protectively silent, listening acutely but revealing little, and Josef never demands more. Incrementally, a sense of mutual recognition and empathy unfolds between them, gently evaporating shields of distrust and cynicism.
The Secret Life of Words, Isabel Coixet's intensely perceptive, wrenchingly cathartic love story, is about the need for human interdependence and the power of silence and speech to transcend trauma. There is endless pleasure in observing subtle, yet electric, exchanges between Hanna and Josef, played superbly by Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins. Though many of the crucial moments occur in Josef's isolated sick bay, Coixet's vision is never too claustrophobic or sober. The action whisks us to Copenhagen, to a quirky Spanish chef's kitchen, and across the wide-open monochromatic sea, which is like a newly blank slate upon which Hanna and Josef's future will be written.
*Summary by Caroline Libresco, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
I do tend to love these kinds of movies, the emotional and poignant tales that explore a theme in the most desolate of locations. Nothing interests me more than a film that takes place in the middle of a desert, or on frozen tundra, or in this case, on a remote oil rig in the Irish Sea. For the most part, the plot of The Secret Life of Words lived up to the unique level set up by the location. The film starts out slowly, and it takes a while to connect these characters to the audience. A voice-over overlaps a good portion of the film, very vague and lyrical. I just found the voice-over distracting and confusing. For a bit, I was worried that it was just another Sarah-Polley-is-depressed movie. However, once we reach the scene where Sarah Polley's character, Hanna, confesses her story and her past to Tim Robbin's character, Josef. Hanna's story is so tragic, so touching, and acted so beautifully by Sarah Polley, it forges an instant connection of empathy with the audience. It's a perfect demonstration of how important one scene can be to either destroy or save a film. My attention may have drifted through the first half of the film, but after the revelation scene, I was riveted until the finale.
The performances are excellent. Sarah Polley is quiet and introverted; her struggle to reconnect with humanity written upon her face in every shot. Tim Robbins gets to have some fun with this character, though he is confined to a hospital bed and blindfolded for a majority of the film. Josef is a sarcastic and gregarious personality, his joking nature a perfect cover for his insecurities and loneliness. The film makes a sorrowing point about the generic nature of war. After Hanna tells her story about her wartime experiences, it slowly began to dawn on me that even though her story is filled with vivid descriptions, it is hard to tell which war she is describing. It was humbling to realize that there is such of variety of atrocities during wartime, that it is hard to identify a certain war based on a description of atrocities alone.
The finale is touching, and though it eventually explains the voice-overs, I thought they were an unnecessary complication to the film's plot. Julie Christie makes a cameo near the end and has a long speech about the atrocities committed during wartime. It's a nice speech, but far to on the nose for this subtle and revealing film. I felt that Hanna's confession and subsequent behavior was a horrifying visual demonstration of Julie Christie's point. In the Q & A after the film's screening, the director talked about how she wanted to use the voice-over to create an air of mystery regarding the beginning of the film. I'd say she succeeded, I just didn't feel it was needed.
Other than a few missteps regarding voice-overs and a slow first half, The Secret Life of Words is a beautiful and touching tale, one of the most affecting films I saw at Sundance.