Film Review #105: The Secret Life of Words
Director: Isabel Coixet
Cast: Sarah Polly, Tim Robbins, Julie Christie
The young Canadian actor Sarah Polley can do remarkable things with a simple walk down a hallway. On board a crippled oil rig in a wintry, squall-tossed Irish Sea, Polley’s Hanna is a refugee from the Balkan Wars of the early 90s. She’s resettled into a dreary English factory job where she sleep-walks through her days. Unable to relax into a forced, off-season vacation in the North of Ireland – on a gray, deserted beach, she sits watching what looks like a burning ship on the gray horizon – she volunteers for a temporary nursing job when she overhears a cell phone conversation in a Chinese restaurant. Soon a helicopter lands her on the rain-swept rig where she meets its handful of remaining crew, including Josef (Tim Robbins), who was badly burned when he tried to rescue a fellow worker after the recent explosion and fire. Because Josef can’t see her – his corneas were burned too – his need to speak, and his desire that she answer him, has an extra urgency. Hanna resists at first. She concludes their first exchange by telling him he can call her Cora (the name of a woman he’s just talked about). She adds that her hair is red, in response to Josef’s searching comment that she has a “blonde voice” (when Josef gets his sight back later, writer-director Isabel Coixet wryly provides a different nurse with a huge red mane as the first person Josef sees).
After this first exchange Hanna heads for the galley to get Josef’s supper. Down that hallway, she hears a boom box playing Italian pop songs. The rig’s chef, Simon (Javier Cámara), occupies himself by cooking from a different national cuisine daily and playing music to match. So today he has made some gnocchi with sauce, beef with fresh basil and a mascarpone dessert. With only three or four movements – echoes of movement, really – Hanna hesitates, her body turns away defensively, she takes a step back, swings her jaw slightly. Then it seems she wills herself forward. Though we might assume she was merely fending off a new introduction, we learn some time later what associations Italian pop songs have for her – a happy time, but then letting any memory back threatens to let them all slip in as well. In another scene, Hanna returns Josef’s tray down the same hallway. He’s sent it back unfinished because she won’t answer his incessant questions, though she does share that she eats only chicken, white rice and yellow-skinned apples. Again she hesitates, sits down on a step, haltingly takes a bite, then eats as though famished – a hint that her wall is cracking.
Hanna seems like someone traumatized and so she is. Eventually she and Josef, having imperceptibly moved past some frontier, tell one another their worst secrets. Each involves betrayal and the subsequent shame of remaining alive when another has died. This exchange occurs quite late in the film and is only possible following such quiet, nuanced performances. Josef confesses an affair with his best friend’s wife – the fellow worker he failed to pull from the fire may have been that man. Hanna reveals that she and another young nursing student, trying to return from Dubrovnik to their home village during the break-up of Yugoslavia, were intercepted by “our own soldiers” and held in one of that era’s make-shift rape camps. How much of the narration of their treatment and Hanna’s friend’s death is really Hanna’s own story – fractions of it made just bearable by assigning them to others in her own recollection – is a mystery.
Coixet, who has made two other features in English, wrote Hanna’s part with Polley in mind. Polley starred in Coixet’s 2003 film, My Life Without Me, about a young married mother who keeps a terminal illness to herself and sets about fulfilling a private wish list during her remaining months. Coixet constructed The Secret Life of Words from three elements that intertwine on-screen and might spell trouble were it not for the performances of her cast. Surface comparisons with von Trier’s 1996 film, Breaking the Waves (which also involves an oil rig) are too easy. Coixet filmed an off-shore documentary for Shell Oil in Chile a decade ago and says she has “daily” wanted to make a film in that setting, because its isolation prompts such shared intimacies. This story’s rig may be delicate and lovely from a distance, a self-contained and glittering mirage on stilts against a pink horizon at sunset, but up close it’s damp, battered by freezing winds, echoes with hollowness and ferries those who want mostly to be left alone.
Coixet also wanted to make a film about victims of political torture, following her visits to Copenhagen’s International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (IRCT) and its counterpart in Sarajevo. When Josef, having recovered his sight and health, searches for Hanna, he follows scraps of clues in her abandoned backpack to IRCT’s home office. There, he meets with her former trauma counselor, Inge (Julie Christie), modeled on the physician Inge Genefke. In an exchange that educates Josef and provides a framework about the IRCT’s work of treating and documenting torture, Coixet’s script and Christie’s performance manage to avoid preachiness and present instead a memorable cameo of the real IRCT founder, who answered Amnesty International’s 1973 global call to physicians to assist torture victims.
Besides dedicating the film to Genefke, Coixet thanks the English writer and art critic John Berger for providing her with “new ways of seeing the world.” This references Berger’s 1972 book, Ways of Seeing – a volume glimpsed on Josef’s desk at one point – about the ways in which visual images have functioned to depict women and how they assume that the “ideal spectator” is always male. The Secret Life of Words upends that assumption with a hero temporarily blinded and, in Berger’s own comments on the film, the “shared salvation of common suffering” that comes of such leveling.
One can’t be sure how much it reflects US film-going tastes or marketing assumptions, but this film, produced by Agustín Almodóvar’s Madrid-based El Deseo, released so far in over twenty countries and the winner of four Spanish Goyas, made just a little over $20,000 in its abbreviated US theatrical run last winter in New York, Los Angeles and, curiously enough, Lincoln, Nebraska. Now it has a second chance with US audiences, released on DVD just four days after Sarah Polley’s well-regarded directing debut, Away From Her.
This review appears today in Stylusmagazine.com. The Secret Life of Words released on DVD on May 8th. Coixet is currently directing Elegy, the screen version of Philip Roth’s novel, with Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz, due in November.