The Secret Life Of Words
Stars: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins
Director: Isabel Coixet
*** (out of five)
There’s a marvelous and involving drama tucked away inside Isabel Coixet’s The Secret Life Of Words, if only the filmmaker would let the audience experience it for themselves.
The film explores the curious relationship that evolves between two lost souls aboard a largely vacant oil rig somewhere — we think — off the Irish coast. Places and names aren’t terribly important; they live entirely within the here and now.
Hannah (Sarah Polley) is a flinty, friendless woman with a strange accent who’s been brought to the rig to care for Josef (Tim Robbins), burned and blinded in a recent explosion.
Josef was trying to save someone else from the flames, and his failure is literally written all over his face. Hannah has her own issues; she won’t tell Josef her name, or any other details about herself, for starters. But Josef’s a talker, gregarious and inquisitive, and as Hannah goes about the business of feeding him and changing his bandages, he wears her down.
In this long midsection, as Polley and Robbins navigate the delicate distance between their characters, The Secret Life Of Words is utterly riveting. Both actors are tremendous, suggesting layers upon layers of tormented pasts and dark motives — one, as it turns out, a great deal more tormented than the other.
It’s when director Coixet decides to investigate that torment, and spell it all out for us, that the movie begins to stagger: Allusions become citations, backstory becomes monologue, and a peripheral character takes centre stage to deliver a long and entirely unnecessary speech about someone’s psychology, pushing us further and further away from Polley and Robbins’ perfect chamber duet.
Further damage is inflicted by Coixet’s decision to frame the story with a child’s insufferably twee voiceover, trying for a lyrical leap she can’t quite achieve. Instead, we’re left watching a potential masterwork slide inexorably into a missed opportunity.