Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, Separate Lies follows a hazy period of time in the lives of extremely wealthy Londoners James and Anne Manning (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). James is a solicitor who commutes from their fancy country house into the city, often returning home at late hours, and Anne is his doting, loving, and completely repressed homemaker wife. Their happy, dull existence is disrupted one day by Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a dashing chap with whom Anne strikes up an affair. Then a hit-and-run occurs involving an old man on a bicycle and a Range Rover, and things get complicated. The vehicle in question, not surprisingly, belongs to Bill.
Some films set in the thick of British hoity-toities focus on the seething emotion that can build and brim just below the surface of a life of cultural understatement—not so here. Nobody in Lies seems particularly seething, or even mildly distressed by their lot. Anne is kind of troubled that she and Bill face manslaughter charges in the wake of the hit-and-run (she was in the car with him), but not really troubled. Likewise, James, upon learning of her affair, makes some feeble efforts to get her back into his stodgy arms, but seems just as content to sit in front of the television and drink wine.
Writer and director Julian Fellowes depicts everything from James' point of view, and so we never get to see Bill and Anne relate to one another, a sight I was desperate to see—James' reactions to hearing about the affair just weren't cutting it; likewise the whole hit-and-run side plot, which is pretty much as boring as it sounds. The world of contemporary upper-class Britain is ripe for ridiculous satire, but here Fellowes doesn't seem interested in skewering it, as he did with great success in his screenplays for films like Gosford Park and Vanity Fair. Not interested in cultural criticism, he instead focuses his debut directorial effort on a sucky murder plot and an allegedly steamy affair that is only discussed, never shown. The result is a film that makes you wonder why the hell these sort of films ever get made at all.