Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Secret Life of Words

The Secret Life of Words, directed by Isabel Coixet, is one of those character-driven films, snail-like in pace, that will drive a viewer short on patience and high on the ADD scale to performing calisthenics during its 115 minutes. If you're looking for action, bail ship early! If it's sixteen degrees of nuance you're after, sit up straight in your futon sofa and pay attention! A futon sofa, in fact, is a good place to be as it eases the path to empathy with one of the principal characters, Josef (Tim Robbins), who spends the majority of the film laid out in a bed, recovering from severe burns and other injuries.

Another injured soul, Hanna, as played by Sarah Polley, is a nurse who we first encounter working as a factory drone. Ms. Polley is your typical Canadian; nine tenths of her talent and accomplishments lie beneath the surface in silent repose while we only glimpse just one tenth. Oh, but what a haunting and beautiful tenth it is. As Hanna, Ms. Polley is a visitor to the human race. It becomes apparent early on that something truly barbaric and hideous has happened to her in the recent past. Her interactions with human beings are minimal; when she needs to, which early on in the movie seems pervasive, she turns off her senses, like she does her hearing aid. She's a shadow passing through the days.
After being forced by her employer to take vacation form her factory shipping & packing duties, (as her Slavic work ethic and resolve not to take vacation for four years has resulted only in earning her the resentment of her vacationing fellow workers), she ends up on an oil rig. Working. Working as a nurse, which she was at some point in time before. Her life's tightly coiled story starts unwinding as she nurses Josef back to health from a horrific fire-related accident on board the oil rig. Considering that Tim Robbins is prone for the majority of the movie, it's amazing what an animated (and, yes, nuanced) performance he gives. If you are a Robbins fan, as I am, you will be pleased with another finely drawn portrait he does of a character.
As with some of the reviews, I was bothered by some of the additional characters that Ms. Coixet elected to write into the film. As with the rest of the cast, the minor characters were finely acted. But the point of having them in the film, specifically the cook and the oceanographer, were lost on me. Initially, it seemed as if their characters would be instrumental to the story and then, like air from a balloon, they fizzled out to nothing. It's as if she had plans for them and then opted to not include them past a certain point. Well, at least she didn't go Hollywood and have them die in some explosion/fire/tsunami snuff.

Julie Christie, in a small role as a Swedish aid worker, shows again that at any age, she is incapable of not being beautiful. As a note, Ms. Polley directed Ms. Christie in Away From Her.

Otherwise, I give a strong recommendation for one of those rainy days or nights when you want to mull over your existence....or lack thereof.

Josef, at one point in the film, asks Hanna what her name is. She sidesteps that question as she does most of his inquiries. Josef starts to speak of a nurse named Cora. He throws away a hint that it's a story he read a while ago. That story, "La señorita Cora", from a book titled "Todos los fuegos el Fuego", is by the late Argentinian write Julio Cortázar, who also wrote, among many books, The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, with his wife Carol Dunlap. This is the only book I've read of his but I recommend it highly. Like this movie, however, it is for the faint of heart, not those in search of technicolor adventures.

Other reviews are here, here, and here.

(Oh, yeah. The picture? One of the best album covers, from the Bill Evans-Jim Hall album, Undercurrent. Flattery? I think so. I'd blogged about the album here.)


A really nice review. O enjoyed reading it almost es much as i enjoyed watching the movie. Haunted me for month. The funny thing is, i have written about it on my blog (in hungarian) and chose the same photo to accompany it. The title of my blog reads in english: against gravity and talking. And that's what this image (and the movie) was for me.
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