In recent years, Tom Wilkinson has embodied a good priest (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), a bad mobster (Batman Begins), a stripper (The Full Monty), and a man longing to be a woman (Normal). But not since In the Bedroom, where he so fully filled the sagging contours of a grieving American father and husband, has the superb, substantial British actor had such a chance to shine as he does in the superior British society drama Separate Lies. Playing an upper-crust lawyer whose comfortable life in a marriage based more on shared property and silverware than shared intimacy is blown apart by infidelity and circumstance, Wilkinson once again astonishes with his ability to convey weakness and strength, hypocrisy and gallantry, cruelty and compassion in the same male animal.
And more specifically, in the same English male animal of a certain caste, a species in which the writer-director, Julian Fellowes, takes great sociological delight. Adapting Nigel Balchin’s novel A Way Through the Wood with a sophisticated appreciation of deception and accommodation in the service of a workable reality among grown-ups, the fellow who scripted Gosford Park makes a promising directorial debut. In Separate Lies, James (Wilkinson) and his silky wife, Anne (Emily Watson), live a well-polished routine of city-home/country-home domesticity, upended when Anne — bored, restless, in a rut of privilege — saunters into an affair with Bill (Rupert Everett), a mischief maker of even greater fiscal means and emotional ennui. An accident, a death, a few secrets kept in complicity, and pretty soon the angles of the relationship geometry shift, and shift again.
Watson excels at sustaining a reckless hunger draped in pearls, and Everett — his handsome face strangely sculpted into a disturbing amalgam of beauty and excess — is frighteningly good at conveying louche hauteur. But it’s Wilkinson who embodies everything unexpectedly passionate and actually human about this very particular, very entangled drama. By the hang of his fine suit jacket, the actor conveys a wealth of information about how much a man — no less a man spoiled by privilege — can carry on his shoulders even when his whole world feels like it’s crumbling.