Now more than ever before, people need to be tolerant of the positions, the beliefs, and the vulnerabilities of others. We live in uncivil times where everyone from politicians to heads of state to husbands and wives love playing the blame game. Zealots on opposing sides spar with each other and take great pride in their stands, but nothing is gained in the long run. This is the moral situation of our times — where the simplistic labels of "good guys" (in countless superhero movies) and "evil doers" (in the language of countless politicians) are tossed around until the terms themselves become meaningless.

That is why a movie like Separate Lies is so important. It deals with the moral maze of choices made by the four lead characters and challenges us to change our sympathies as the events keep unfolding into deeper and more complicated circles of meaning. Here a person we have seen as an evil doer turns out to also have done something noble. A person who has strong principles and always wants to do the right thing makes choices that bring harm to himself and the one he loves the most. This excellent film marks the directorial debut of Julian Fellowes who won the 2001 Original Screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park. It is based on Niegl Belchin's novel A Way Through the Woods.

James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) is a respected lawyer married to Anne (Emily Watson). They have all the perks of a successful upper middle-class life with a comfortable country home and a place in London as well. But an accident that takes place on the road near them upends their lives and exposes the lies that have undermined the surface charm of their lifestyle. The man killed by a hit-and-run driver turns out to be the husband of Maggie (Linda Bassett), their cleaning lady who Anne hired years ago despite her having a police record for stealing. The accident happened the night of a party that James was unable to attend on account of business at the office. Seeing a dent on the car of Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a divorced aristocrat who has just returned from America, he suspects that this fellow whom he dislikes might have been the culprit. But he later learns from Anne that she was driving the car. Now the tables turn and the righteous indignation of James turns to conjuring up all the ways he can protect his wife and save his reputation. The final revelation comes when Anne admits that Bill is her lover. When asked why, she responds that he expects nothing from her whereas every day of her marriage to James has been a test with her failing again and again and again. The affair for her is the first genuine act of liberation in years from feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

This morality play reveals how James, a perfectionist who expects a lot from himself and everyone around him, turns easily into a liar and unprincipled cad once his career and marriage are on the line. It is edifying to watch the changes in his character as more plot twists unfold. Tom Wilkinson gives a masterful and nuanced performance as this pompous man who is forced to come to terms with his own flaws. Emily Watson is credible as Anne, an unhappy wife who takes her shot at sexual fulfillment but just can't handle the guilt she carries in her heart. Her loving ministrations to a person in need show us a side of her that surprises us. Rupert Everett is convincing as the marriage wrecker Bill, a scary and amoral man who frightens James and others with his message that he is above the rules and petty Puritanism of normal people. But even this character who could be seen as the villain of the piece manages to dash our expectations once we think that we have him figured out. At one point, James says: "We are all wreckers. We make choices. We make them for the best, most loving reasons, and we don't see the damage we cause." Well said and true.

This riveting English drama is a modern morality play that offers many insights into marriage, love, and the slippery slope of deception. Best of all, it helps reveal the folly that lies behind dividing the world into those who are good and those who are evil.

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