Close confines force together two lost souls

The Secret Life of Words

on December 15, 2006 by Wade Major
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Though it ultimately lives up to its title, it's the silences that speak most forcefully for the better part of The Secret Life of Words, Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet's grittily poetic second consecutive collaboration with Canadian actress Sarah Polley after their critically-acclaimed My Life Without Me.

Polley stars as Hanna, a hearing-impaired Eastern European immigrant who cuts short an intended Northern Ireland vacation to care for an oil rig worker named Josef (Tim Robbins), badly burned and temporarily blinded in a recent flash fire that killed another man. The microcosmic world of the rig, now operating at minimum capacity in the wake of the accident, is well suited to Hanna's antisocial inclinations — the handful of men still there are kind and generally respectful of her desire for privacy, all except for Josef, that is. Cocky, clever and inquisitive, he pries incessantly and shares far too many details of his own. Yet Hanna neither bends nor wavers, revealing nothing about herself — not even her name — and scarcely twitching at his intended provocations.

But such detachment rarely lasts long in a confined environment — like prisoners of their own internal wars, the two eventually begin to bond, each breaking down the other's defense mechanism to discover the kindred spirit within.

Those familiar with Coixet's brand of arthouse drama will instantly recognize her hallmarks — unconventional scenarios laced with gentle metaphors and earnest, heartbreaking performances that gain power through delicacy and restraint. One could draw certain comparisons to A Farewell to Arms or even The Sea Inside, but that would be reading far too much into the importance of the nurse/patient dynamic. At some level, the nature of the relationship is pure contrivance, a catalyst for Coixet to begin the real work of bringing together two deeply wounded individuals and allowing them the chance to balm one another.

Making such a story work on paper, of course, is one thing. Making it work onscreen requires a Herculean effort from the actors, a task to which Polley and Robbins — as well as their supporting cast — are more than adequately suited. That's not to say that stories such as this are necessarily box office gold — fast cameos by Eddie Marsan, Steven Mackintosh and a brief appearance by Julie Christie speak to the obligatory tricks required to get these kinds of pictures off the ground. All the more reason, then, for discerning audiences to seek out this one from among the thicket of holiday blockbusters. Distributor: Strand
Cast: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Javier Camara, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Steven McKintosh, Eddie Marsan and Julie Christie
Director/Screenwriter: Isabel Coixet
Producer: Esther Garcia
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not yet rated
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Release date: December 20, 2006 ltd

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