Separate Lies

Opens Fri., Oct. 14, at Harvard Exit.

Damn you, Rupert Everett! Can you leave no good marriage alone? Is no English household safe from your roguish charm? Certainly not that of prosperous London attorney James (Tom Wilkinson) and wife Anne (Emily Watson), whose weekend home in Buckinghamshire proves to be anything but a country retreat. Everett's character, Bill, is lounging about his aristocratic family's estate nearby—too rich to work, too louche to care about anything but his own short-term sensual needs. He drinks too much, drives too fast, talks while he's chewing, and dresses like Eminem. Oh, and did we mention he's irresistibly handsome? Though Bill and James meet on the cricket ground, Separate Lies (based on Nigel Balchin's 1951 novel A Way Through the Wood) isn't entirely locked in England's Evelyn Waugh past of tea and infidelity. There are now cell phones and Range Rovers and jet flights to Paris, added courtesy of Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), here directing his first feature. He respects Balchin's creaky drawing-room architecture, in which the three main characters meet regularly to drink, lie to one another, then come up with a new set of lies when a policeman inquires about a traffic fatality on their country lane. The movie becomes both a whodunit and a marital study in Fellowes' very efficient distillation, its tidy four-act shape also probably reflecting its successful stage adaptation in the '50s.

Morally, however, the piece remains of the '50s. Themes that may have been shocking when expressed then are commonplace now. "You have such standards," Anne complains to the upright James. "I fail every test you set me." That, of course, speaks to Bill's appeal—he has no standards at all. ("I know I'm the villain of the piece," sighs Bill, but not enough so; I found myself wishing we could spend more time with him—boozing and playing Xbox with his kids—and less with James and Anne and their cocker spaniel and their plate-smashing agonies.)

Forgotten today, Balchin (1908–1970) was a prolific writer who helped expand the popular English novel to include grubby concerns like money, business, and even a little sex. (In the late '50s, he followed the money to Hollywood, working as a galley slave on Cleopatra and other projects.) His own marriage came apart shortly before he wrote Way Through, partly because he tried to set up a free-lovin' quartet with another couple. The experience certainly bears on James and Anne, as the sexual revolution has on countless marriages since. But what's Balchin's greatest legacy? He worked as an industrial consultant for many years, and one of his clients was a chocolate factory. For one of its new products, he suggested a perfect, poetic name that's with us still: Kit-Kat. (R)

 
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