Julian Fellowes is two for two. The English TV actor’s first big screenwriting credit, the 2001 Robert Altman whodunit Gosford Park
, netted him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and now with his directorial debut, Fellowes again demonstrates a mastery of British uppercrust dramas. Adapted from Nigel Balchin’s 1951 novel A Way Through the Wood
, which, like Fellowes’ first book earlier this year, Snobs
, irrevocably ties matrimony and social mores together like only the English can, Separate Lies
throws in a body for good measure. Amidst midlife stasis in the lush countryside outside of London, James and Anne Manning (Wilkinson and Watson) are introduced to haughty playboy Bill Bule (Everett), whose dark good looks inspire the lady of the house to throw a cocktail party. When the husband of the Mannings’ maid is killed in a hit-and-run early that same evening, an ugly scrape on Bule’s SUV is thereafter all the circumstantial evidence necessary for barrister Manning to demand that the deathly hued younger snob turn himself in. Upon his wife’s confession that she too was in the vehicle, Manning’s confusion and dismay elicit a carnal, four-letter exclamation. "That’s what we were doing," whispers Anne. It’s one of the film’s pivotal moments, one that Watson (who’s like nails on a chalkboard to many filmgoers) underplays beautifully, as she does the entirety of her part. Wilkinson, of course, turns in another faultless performance, with Everett quietly adding to the mounting tension of the cover-up that follows Anne Manning’s admission, not to mention the love triangle that ensnares the three principal characters. All the secondary roles are expertly cast as well, particularly David Harewood as the detective intent on getting his man. Tying up crime, punishment, and heartbreak in under 90 minutes, Fellowes is all crisp, sharply executed right turns, the narrative continually narrowing down not into a police procedural, but rather into an clear-eyed accounting of the emotional price paid for loyalty among lovers. Like the best UK drawing room dilemmas, Separate Lies
is more tart than bitter, with Fellowes, the Cambridge-educated son of a diplomat, acquitting himself grandly of cinematic boorishness.