Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Secret life of Words

By s. Sunday, October 9, 2011 , , , , , ,
(115 min, 2005)
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Isabel Coixet
Stars: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins and Sverre Anker Ousdal

“Is that why they call me a sullen girl -- sullen girl
They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea
But he washed my shore and he took my pearl
And left an empty shell of me
And there's too much going on
But it's calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion
Under the waves in the blue of my oblivion”

Fiona Apple, “Sullen girl”
Measuring the pain.

Hannah (Sarah Polley), who wears a hearing aid, is forced to go on holiday. On holiday she manages to find a job: caring for Josef (Tim Robbins), a burn victim on an oil rig who temporarily lost his sight, until he's stable enough to be transferred. There is almost no one on the rig, except a cook, an oceanographer and a few others out at sea. Hannah tends to Josef and he slowly breaks her shell of silence

I only saw three movies by Isabel Coixet but she is slowly becoming one of my favorite directors. She portrays the stories in her films so tenderly and beautifully that I have fallen in love with each film of hers I saw. First it was “My life without me” also with Sarah Polley that dealt with the story of terminally ill girl who prepares herself for death and tries to make sure her family will be happy after she is gone. Then it was “Elegy” about strange and passionate love between a student and older professor, also with a lot of undertones of death, passing and pain. And now it's “The secret life of words” stunning and powerful tale of two hurt people who slowly discover each other and learn to trust others.

What immediately grabbed my attention was the main character – Hannah. She behaves in a very peculiar way – she doesn't talk to anyone, she doesn't wanna go on vacation. She uses the same bars of gray soap and she constantly eats the same things – chicken, rice and apples. Her apartment is incredibly modest and she seems lonely, sad and it's obvious from the first scenes that her behavior is a result of something horrible that happened to her. She calls a woman (Julie Christie) and doesn't even talk to the phone. Who is that woman? What happened to Hannah? Those questions rise quickly and we're going to have to wait for a long time before we find answers.

Hannah is taking care of Josef – we see the incident during which he got hurt in the beginning of the movie, but it's not clear what happened there. First we think it's Josef who is the hurt one, but we are wrong. He is very forward, friendly and almost rudely curious about Hannah but deep down he's very sensitive and caring. He asks Hannah a lot of personal questions and at first she tells him nothing. With time she will start answering – first she will tell him lies, scared of creating any bond, but then she will tell him the truth. The absolute truth.

I write this review spoiler free because I'd like the people who read it to see this movie. At first it may appears to be quite slow, but because we have all those questions we look answers for, we keep watching. It is the movie built, as suggested in the title, on words. Words, that help people construct relationships, words that carry emotions – love, pain, consolation. Words that can either be truthful or completely fabricated. Words, that even if put together confusingly and carefully, because of the emotions hidden in them can send exactly the message we wanted to send subconsciously. Examples for all of those situations are presented in the movie.

The script is wonderful when it comes to the characters – Hannah takes incredibly brave steps in the movie and we understand why, the bond between her and Josef, how it's born, how it's developing is beautifully portrayed. When it comes to the events is a bit less plausible – after what Hannah has been through I cannot imagine being on the secluded platform in the middle of the sea would be possible for her.

The film contains extremely powerful sequence, probably the most shaking one I've seen in Coixet's movie so far. It is the story Hannah tells Josef, the story that at first seems to be whimsical and joyful only to turn out to be one of the most scaring and disturbing stories you've heard. Sarah Polley's work in this film is amazing but in this scene she really outdid herself. Because of the words Hannah uses and how she tells the story we can't be sure which parts of it happened to her personally. But the whole image of it, painted by Hannah, is something that will never leave your head and totally justifies her behavior in the movie.

By the end of the film when Hannah gets her happy ending we hear the voice over of little girl that appears few times in the movie. It's not clear whether it's Hannah's daughter that she was forced to kill or Hannah's daughter from the pregnancy she aborted after the events. I think, since the girl refers to Hannah's sons as her “brothers” that the girl and the boys symbolize Hannah's innocence. One she once lost and now she is starting to find again. Or maybe happiness – maybe two kids symbolize both her and Josef. Coixet's movies have a lot of ambiguity in them, it doesn't matter which theory is right, the only thing that matters is that the characters have finally found peace.
(end of spoilers)

“The secret life of words” is better than “Elegy” but not as terrific as “My life without me”. Maybe it's because “My life without me” is one of those very few movies that actually carny hope in them. But Polley plays inspirational characters in both films – so brave although being incredibly hurt that the only thing you can do is admire them. Happy endings are not bad things, when you watch a movie where characters have been through so much that any more pain, even one tear more would be too much. The film is very delicate, quiet and it treats it characters with respect – it doesn't hurry any confessions, it doesn't drop any hints. We don't feel as if we are watching the movie. We feel that we're watching real life. And that is the movie's greatest achievement.


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