The Secret Life of Words

Josh Bell

The kind of movie in which conversations are often prefaced with "Do you really want to hear this?," The Secret Life of Words is heavy with hushed revelations and ponderous monologues, but not much for anything that resembles real human interaction. Before becoming a guilt-inducing lecture on the way people turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, it's a somber and soporific two-character face-off, with Polley and Robbins competing to see who can be the most dour. Polley, a great actress saddled with an unworkable character, comes out the clear winner, although it's certainly a hollow victory. Her Hanna is a survivor of civil war in the Balkans, a sullen and withdrawn woman who impulsively takes a job nursing injured oil worker Josef (Robbins) on a remote oil rig. Their relationship develops in that immediately intimate and profound way that seems to only happen in movies, with Josef's probing and often inappropriate questions eventually eating away at Hanna's cold façade.

But their interactions are strained and artificial, up to and including Hanna's epic speech about the torture she endured during the war. It's meant to be moving, but it feels like writer-director Coixet wrote the movie around the speech, and as the catalyst for Hanna and Josef's romantic connection, it's more than a little discomforting (and not in the intended way).

Coixet is tackling genuinely difficult subjects, but she doesn't make her characters' emotional lives real enough to convince the audience she's doing anything more than solemn finger-wagging. Add the bizarre childlike voice-over at the beginning and end, and you've got a film that can't hold the weight of its own pretensions.

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