Spanish-born writer-director Isabel Coixet treads delicate territory with alternately slippered feet and hammer toes in “The Secret Life of Words,” an admirably intimate, character-driven work that burdens itself with more importance than it can ultimately handle. Without spoiling the film’s final revelations, it should be noted that Coixet’s humanist drive and reach for topicality set it apart from the usual onslaught of good-intention indie films, and, thankfully, its central performance, by the always wonderful Sarah Polley, profoundly committed and convincingly melancholy, goes a long way in helping Coixet make her case. Unfortunately the devastating portrait of historical trauma that makes up the spine of this film, too often succumbs to indie platitudes, and “The Secret Life of Words” falls to pieces trying to put itself together.
Polley is taciturn and alarmingly introverted as Hanna, a hearing-impaired factory worker of indeterminate Eastern European origin. Leading a drab life of self-imposed routine and conformity (she dines on the same tupperwared meal of disturbingly vacuum-packed looking apples and chicken every day), Hanna has thoroughly distanced herself from all communication. So immersed in work that vacation would be out of the question for her to conceive of, Hanna is forced by her boss to take time off, ending up in a Northern Ireland town, where she happens to overhear of a nursing job. Not one to revel in downtime, she signs up for the position, which is located on a remote oil rig off of Ireland’s cost, where Josef (played by a warm, bemused Tim Robbins) is bedridden after a temporarily blinding fire accident. As expected, this mystery woman, given to self-denial and isolation, and her patient, whose good nature and gregariousness, though held in check by his ailment, are obvious, struggle to form a cohesive bond, as he continually tries to break through her impenetrable shell.
Coixet films the becalmed isolation of the oil rig, and the actors therein, as if imbued with some sort of mystical ethereality; it’s an approach that pays off as often as it feels forced. Men away from their families for extended periods of time enact tender surrogate romances, music becomes a salve for the lonely soul. Javier Camara, most remembered for his work as the sad-sack male nurse with an unhealthy obsession in “Talk to Her,” again charms, less disconcertingly, as Simon, the cook-on-deck whose elaborately flavorful meals add a touch of spice to the drab environs-Cámara’s sweet presence is welcome, yet when Hanna starts to clandestinely chow down on his gnocchi and chocolate desserts with gusto, it starts to become naggingly apparent that Coixet is in search of quick fixes and narrative resolutions for the girl’s quiet anguish.
It’s a problem that becomes wildly transparent as the film trudges to its ending; after revealing the locus of Hanna’s grief, in an agonizing monologue, powerfully delivered by Polley, Coixet feels the need to continue her film until it reaches a satisfying conclusion, one that would seem all but impossible considering the decks stacked against the characters. Coixet is good with atmosphere, but bad with platitudes, and Hanna’s anger and unimaginable pain simply cannot be relieved with a kiss and a hug.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]