The Secret Life of Words

(Spain - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Javier Camara, Danny Cunningham
Genre: Drama
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenplay: Isabel Coixet
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Composer: -

A listless hearing impaired factory worker with no life winds up spending the vacation the union forces her to take caring for a burned and temporarily blinded accident victim on a secluded oil rig damaged souls have a way of gravitating toward. The aftermath of great traumas has rendered the characters dead inside long before we meet them, but even this crew of introverts expects new worker Hanna (Sarah Polley) to associate with them a bit, particularly the nurse’s sole patient Josef (Tim Robbins), who suddenly has a great desire for chatter now that he can’t do anything beyond lie around day and night.

Most of our interest lies in figuring out what’s wrong with mysterious Hanna, who is withdrawn to the point of being socially oblivious. The involvement of Pedro Almodovar (producer) hints toward a woman’s tragedy, but Isabel Coixet is very clever in revealing only enough to escalate our interest while allowing ambiguity to carry the film. Coixet (My Life Without Me) is smart enough to stick with a good thing, once again casting Sarah Polley as her lead actress. Expanding upon her breakout role in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Polley gives another great understated performance, subtly conveying her unstated wounds. She has a way of carrying herself that always makes her characters more interesting than they have a right to be, in this case passive and reserved, which makes for a nice counter balance to Tim Robbins crude and curious patient.

The relaxed atmosphere stranded on the soon to be abandoned ship allows for the intimate and delicate chamber piece to grow in our imagination. The minor verbal tussles between Hanna & Josef slowly break down each others defenses with the acting conveying enough about the characters, who are scarred more by their past than their not always believable physical disabilities, that we shouldn’t need it all spelled out.

A story of the inexpressible works much better when conveyed to our other senses, but after carefully edging back the skin layer by layer, Hanna suddenly bears all and the film may as well end there for all Coixet manages to muster in the final quarter. The Secret Life of Words wasn’t the most believable character study to begin with, as Josef seemed stuck on the rig for the sake of the plot, but more importantly it was well observed and emotionally honest. Suddenly, The Secret Life of Words interesting becomes a conventional melodrama.

The final portion is an entirely predictable and contrived feel good story of dual redemption. Growing increasingly cliched, we are treated to speeches, a therapist openly discussing her former patient with a love sick puppy she’s just met, a touch of romance, and the requisite happy ending. Succumbing to possibly the lamest line any female character has ever been won over by, “I'll learn how to swim, Hanna. I swear, I'll learn how to swim,” things grow really frustrating though Adolph Hitler should be evoked by successors human rights violations, I’m instead reminded of Menno Meyjes’ turkey Max where John Cusack got him to give in to the legendary line, “Come on Hitler, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade.” It’s good that things can still work out for the lowly and damaged, and it shouldn’t be a bad thing for a filmmaker to be hopeful, but a better, more realistic and demanding work would have had Hanna & Josef learn something from each other in the time they had together which would allow them to move on apart.



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