The Secret Life of Words
Partially deaf girl, Hanna (the luminous Sarah Polley – Dawn of the Dead, Go), lives a life of monotonous and comforting routine. She works at a local plastic wrap factory, she lives alone, she never takes a day of leave, and most of all she never really connects with anyone. Regularly turning down the volume on her hearing aids she causes the unheeded world around her to fade away into the background. Into this muted realm of detachment director Isabel Coixet takes us; tentative intruders looking through a one way mirror and not understanding the beautiful and disparate elements before us. A slow-burn, bittersweet story with an aesthetic depth to easily immerse oneself in, Isabel Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words is one of my sleeper picks from this year’s DVD releases.
Forced by her employer to take a month’s leave Hanna foregoes the suggested sand and palm trees for the mundane simplicity of a nondescript seaside motel. On the first day of her solo holiday, through a twist of circumstance, she ends up taking a temporary post as a nurse on a nearby, offshore oil rig. Closeted in close proximity with a few other solitary souls Hanna slowly emerges out from her interior world and begins to find connection as part of this unlikely group. Her key counterpoint is the patient she has been seconded to treat, Josef, a sociable and forward American rig worker temporarily blinded and suffering major burns from an accident – portrayed by an authentically jaded feeling Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River). In each other they discover a source of understanding where they can begin to be released from the tight grip of their deepest shame and hurts.
The Secret Life of Words could have been two different films, using the same actors and characters, thatched together into a contrasting mellifluous whole. During the first half the mood of the movie is as hazy as the mist and clouds that permeate the screen; as mysterious as its quietly solemn subject. Coixet gives virtually no background information about her tight-lipped protagonist; begrudgingly letting small titbits go as the dialogue requires it. Enjoying the mystery, I thought the film might centre around the exploration of Hanna’s interior existence as she tenuously moved through the concrete world of the oil rig, reminiscent, in ways, of Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2004). However this was not to be. The Secret Life of Words’ back end funnels the plot through a sharply focused narrative which highlights Hanna’s previously ambiguous behaviour and motivations. Yet this is no Shyamalanesque serpentine thriller, designed to impress us with its cleverness. Rather the interplay of relationships is what counts here; specific plot details serve only to give these interactions context and weight without overtaking them. The movie centres on the hope of rediscovery when life has buried, beyond sight, your very person.
Credit has to go to both Polley and Robbins who show restraint, communicate ably, and share a palpable onscreen chemistry. Polley’s slow and painful character solidification is particularly arresting to observe. Production closely supports this with light, sound, setting, weather – the complete visual and aural tone of the film – mirroring this shift of interior/exterior balance. At first I was a little disappointed by this transition, but Coixet resists the temptation to over dramatise – even the most emotive scene, in which all scars are bared, is relatively pared back from what it could have been. With the exception, perhaps, of the film’s resolution. Finding a relational re-entry point into life will by no means remove the scars this life has left. Coixet and editors might have been better advised to opt against this high level of resolution by cutting the last few scenes. Regardless, they do manage to maintain a certain level of ambiguity in which we find room to ask questions and explore the thematic matter on our own terms.
A thoughtful and enjoyable viewing experience, Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words deserves to find a wider audience and hopefully the DVD release will bring this film into many more homes.
A vanilla* release this DVD includes only the feature, the theatrical trailer, and other Madman release trailers. Despite this the DVD transfer is good with a nice anamorphic 16:9 picture that is clear and evenly toned. Likewise the sound comes with the choice of a 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital making the viewing experience as pleasant as can be on the equipment that you have available.
» Region 4 PAL
» Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9
» Language: English (5.1 or 2.0 – Dolby Digital)
» Subtitles: English, Spanish
» Theatrical Trailer
* vanilla = basic version with no extra features or add-ons.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Content may disturb
Duration: 115 min
Director: Isabel Coixet (2005)
Actors: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, and Julie Christie.
Distributor: Madman Films
NOTE: The film portion of this review (with a few editorial changes) was first published on The Lumière Reader website as part of the 2007 NZ International Film Festival coverage.