A man is riding his bicycle down a quiet country road in the English countryside, past dappled trees and charming cottages, when, with a sickening swipe that lands like a sledgehammer on the tinkling piano, he's knocked into the air by a suburban assault vehicle that just keeps on truckin'.
So, promisingly, begins "Separate Lies," the directorial debut of screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who won an Academy Award for "Gosford Park." Based on the novel "A Way Through the Wood" by Nigel Balchin, the movie stars Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett as a trio of ruling-class narcissists for whom the accident potentially represents a grievous lifestyle downgrade.
James Manning (Wilkinson), a wealthy, workaholic lawyer, and stuffy, overbearing husband to Anne (Watson), comes home after missing his wife's party to find her waiting for him at the train station in the company of their aristocratic neighbor, Bill Bule (Everett). Anne claims she couldn't find the car keys, but James is put off by Bule's intrusion into their domestic routine, especially after he comes inside for a drink when they get home and casually derides a portrait of a not-quite ancestor. "One should never hang bad paintings," Bule sneers, as though the very act of speaking might bore him to death. "They corrupt one's taste."
Bule's taste, it appears, is about the only thing about him left to corrupt. A louche, divorced lordling who spends his time dyspeptically knocking around his father's ancestral estate playing video games with his young sons, he emanates an air of sullen, monosyllabic imperiousness that rubs James' insufferably prim, upper middle-class, meritocratic imperiousness in all the wrong places. When, the next morning, James and Anne's housecleaner Maggie (Linda Bassett) calls to say that her husband is in the hospital, the victim of a hit-and-run, James immediately recalls a telltale dent on Bule's Range Rover that he noticed the night before. Over an expensive lunch in the city, James identifies his culprit and demands that he turn himself in before the main course arrives.
It seems, for a moment, as though Fellowes has created the ripest conditions for satire. But instead, the director, who stated in the press-kit director's notes that his intention with "Separate Lies" was to fashion a "moral maze" in which "good people do bad things," mistakes their sticky predicament for tragedy. (It is a tragedy, of course, for the soon-dead cyclist and his widow -- but Maggie remains a tangential character on whose loyalty and devotion the fate of the protagonists hinges.)
In other words, the "bad things" are glaringly obvious, but the "good people" are nowhere in sight. In their place are three wealthy, well-bred products of privilege whose good intentions, when put to the test, turn out to be purely hypothetical. James' smug self-righteousness remains rock-like until his moral absolutism collides with his personal interest.
Little about James elicits sympathy -- his and Anne's marriage has the polite, dispassionate quality of a high-level business transaction. Wilkinson's expert portrait of the pillar of the establishment as a middle-aged prig is almost disturbingly convincing, and Everett's Bule is a completely believable blank. Watkins' Anne comes off as the most human of the three, but just barely, and there's little in her situation to raise her to the status of heroine.
In their refinement and dogged pursuit of pleasure, or gratification, or whatever it is they're after, Anne and Bule might as well be a couple of disaffected teens in Burberry. To watch the film is to marvel at the cast's virtuosity at fleshing out the shallowest people in England, and the observable intelligence and talent of all those involved doesn't make "Separate Lies" any more compelling, or its characters more resonant. For all their intense discussions on personal and moral responsibility, James, Anne and Bule's decisions remain strategic moves rather than conscientious choices right until the end, so that "Separate Lies" resembles nothing so much as a game of moral checkers.
MPAA rating: R for language, including some sexual references
Times guidelines: Adult themes, some disturbing images
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Written and directed by Julian Fellowes. From the novel "A Way Through the Wood" by Nigel Balchin. Producers Christian Colson, Steve Clark-Hall. Director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts BSC. Production designer Alison Riva. Editors Alex Mackie ACE, Martin Walsh ACE. Music by Stanislas Syrewicz. Costume designer Michele Clapton. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.