Director: Isabel Coixet
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Kathryn Ware
Two damaged souls find each other in the most unlikely of places, aboard a near-abandoned oil rig off the coast of Ireland. Josef has been severely burned in an accident and requires a nurse’s care before he’s well enough to be moved to a mainland hospital. Hanna, an immigrant factory worker on a company-imposed holiday (her first in four years), volunteers to care for the patient. So begins one of the most unromantic romances committed to film in years.
As the downbeat story plays out, these two strangers open up to one another, revealing deeper scars within. Hanna (Sarah Polley, in a powerful performance) is withdrawn and taciturn. She has her set routine, eats only three foods (rice, apples and chicken), has no friends, and doesn’t quite know what to do with herself on vacation. Aboard the oil rig she has a purpose and joins a skeleton crew of eccentric loners who also prefer to be left alone. Josef (Tim Robbins), confined to bed and in much pain, is temporarily blinded and he carries on a constant monolog trying to draw out his silent nurse with flirtatious patter. Over time, Hanna opens up, culminating in a powerful confession scene that reveals a painful past.
The Secret Life of Words scores unconventionality points for both its setting and as a dramatic romance, and Robbins and Polley (despite a wavering accent) give strong anchoring performances, but as a whole, the film comes up short. Some of the dialog is stagy, suggesting a more effective two character stage play. Characters aboard the rig (including a squawking goose) provide much needed relief from the intense chamber drama playing out in Josef’s sick room, but they don’t really add much to the story. The soundtrack, punctuated with tunes incongruous with the rest of the film, misfires more often than not. Julie Christie, as a woman in Denmark with a tie to Hanna’s past, has a big scene late in the film that comes off as preachy—a message inserted by the director, that while valuable in its own right, stops the story cold.
Finally, The Secret Life of Words is puzzling and not in a good way. Questions are raised that are more frustrating than thought-provoking. Whose strange voice (think of the slightly grating voice of Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies) narrates the beginning and end of the film? What exactly does it signify? Why does Hanna sound as if she’s from Ireland in the first half of the movie and Eastern Europe in the second? And in the relating of her traumatic past, whose tale is she really telling? The more I thought about Secret Life afterward, the less satisfying I found the experience. l