THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS (Isabel Coixet). 112 minutes. Opens Friday (August 4). For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Beneath its conventional romance, The Secret Life Of Words strives for political, psychological and mythic depth. It almost achieves it, too, thanks to director Isabel Coixet 's handling of the oil rig where most of the action takes place. It's a fairly obvious and nifty metaphor for the imperilled human condition, and Coixet's mix of hand-held roughness and elegant lighting brings this out very well.
Sarah Polley does an outstanding job as Hanna, a severely depressed factory worker who, almost by accident, spends her enforced vacation nursing a rig worker who's been burnt and temporarily blinded. Almost wordlessly, she draws us into her secret agony without inviting our sentimental pity. Tim Robbins plays well against her as the garrulous burn victim who talks to hide his fear, but the focus is on her all the way.
It isn't until Hanna's big revelation that the film's metaphor gains focus and weight. More importantly, the story is pulled powerfully in a very different direction. But by then, we're 80 minutes in, and the romance's course is firmly set. We just know how this is going to come out. And it does.
Which is too bad. If the reveal had come at, say, 30 minutes and been explored fully, this might've been a compelling, original movie. As it is, it's simply a decent romance with something dark on its mind -- which beats the hell out of feel-good.