I decided to pop this film on again this evening, rather than watching something new. For me, I have a strange adoration for Isabel Coixet's films, or at least the ones in which she has collaborated with Sarah Polley in the lead role.
I've been a huge fan of Polley's ever since I saw her in 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, and I've followed her career ever since. Along with The Sweet Hereafter, I think I'd place Polley's performances in this film, and the previous collaboration, 2003's My Life Without Me as my three favorite.
Both of the Polley/Coixet collaborations have really gotten to me. Neither is perfect, they're both a little on the quirky side, but not in an unbearable way. They both have some rough edges, but in many respects, I love them for these flaws and idiosyncracies, rather than in spite of them.
The Secret Life of Words could hardly be described as a "fun" film. The story is slow going, but rewarding for the patient viewer. To reveal the film's secrets would undermine the emotional wallop they pack when they come to light, but the film is about a Czech immigrant named Hanna(Polley) who goes off to an oil rig at sea to care for Josef (Tim Robbins), who was severely burned in an accident on the oil rig while trying to rescue his best friend.
The two characters couldn't be any more different. To the outside eye, Josef is abrasive, intrusive, yet personable. Hanna is quiet, closed off, and emotionally distanced from anything and everyone. But as time goes on, and they are forced to deal with one another, they forge a common bond through the scars of their respective pasts. And with time, Hanna gradually opens up, while Josef eases up as he finds himself drawn to Hanna and curious about her life.
Both of the characters have a little tit-for-tat in revealing personal details. But while Josef uses Hanna's visits to feel her out in an attempt to confess his sins, Hanna desperately avoids getting to close or revealing too much. But like Josef, knowing that Hanna has a backstory is what draws us into her. We want to know what Hanna's past is and how it shaped her into the cold, mysterious woman she has become.
Adding another dimension to the story is that Josef has been temporarily blinded due to corneal damage sustained in the accident, and Hanna is deaf, though she can hear through the use of a hearing aid that she turns off when she wants to shut everything else out.
Once Hanna's devastating and deeply personal confession comes, it's delivered in a remarkable 12-minute monologue that exposes us to the unimaginable. But this scene is also just an outstanding specimen of acting. Polley remains so focused, emotional without going for histrionics, while Robbins silently reacts to everything he is hearing. Just a remarkable scene. In their lukewarm review of the film, Entertainment Weekly basically pans the film as a whole, but states that this scene pretty much saves it, ultimately getting a B- from them.
Polley, as implied earlier, is completely brilliant in the film. She commits so fully to this character and it shows. Robbins, an actor who I typically have very mixed feelings about, is equally as impressive. I think this is the best he has ever been, and though I disagree highly with Oscar win for Mystic River, this is a performance that makes up for that.
It is also worth noting that Julie Christie delivers a brief but phenomenal performance in a very limited role. Her character appears sporadically, and it's unclear for most of the film exactly how she is connected to the story, but once you know her involvement, and her one big scene comes, it's very powerful. The rest of the supporting cast, including Javier Cámara, is all quite good as well.
The cinematography in the film, like Hanna, is beautiful yet dreary, and the backdrop of the oil rig, which has been rendered inoperable since the accident, provides a perfect setting to relate to Hanna's self-imposed isolation. The soundtrack is nice, yet never intrusive (Antony and The Johnson's "Hope There's Someone," in particular, suits the film well).
I think what connected me to the film the most is how it shows the dichotomy between how Hanna and Josef deal with their past tragedies. Josef seems to be seeking absolution from his sins, while Hanna hides any emotion to keep her secrets and her shame safe from the outside world. And as each of the characters develop, you grow increasingly more involved in each of them and their relationship with one another. And though the core story is quite grim, Coixet is pretty adept and interspersing light humor throughout, just as she did in her previous film.
Additionally, what I love about it is that the film leaves a lot of blanks to be filled. Because it's clear that Hanna disassociates much of what happened to her, it isn't completely spelled out what she endured herself or what she simply witnessed. The few moments of narration provide an interesting dimension to the film that also require interpretation on the viewer's end - I've heard varying accounts on how people view the connection.
Most others with whom I've discussed the film either love it or are indifferent to it by not connecting to it, despite acknowledging the wonderful performances and scenes found in the film. It seems that one's enjoyment of the film ultimately depends upon whether you get hooked in by the mystery of Hanna's past and the ambiguities Coixet leaves you to ponder. Since seeing the film initially in May, I've watched it several times since, and I've come to view it as one of the best films 2006 had to offer, and I hope more people discover this film and fall in love with it as much as I did. It's a shame that this film didn't get a proper release and find the audience it deserved, yet I hope that this provides people with an opportunity to discover this film without any preconceived notions based on the hype that usually accompanies most films.