The Secret Life of Words

Isabel Coixet

In this haunting minimalist character drama, co-produced by fellow Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, writer/director Isabel Coixet reteams with her My Life Without Me leading lady, the Canadian actress Sarah Polley in a role written specifically for her in this unusual romantic story of lonely opposites finding themselves kindred spirits. Polley portrays the Eastern European Hanna, the quiet hearing-impaired hard-working factory employee forced by her boss in the UK after years of dedicated service that intimidates her complaining coworkers to take a forced vacation. While on holiday, only moments after being “released” from work, she accepts another position as a nurse aboard an oil rig in the Irish Sea, tending to a temporarily blind burn victim and although we are given very little in the way of back story regarding Hanna, we quickly realize that as she claimed in her "offer," she is quite an experienced caretaker. The patient Josef (Tim Robbins) is one of only a handful of employees on the nearly deserted rig and as the sole female, Hanna quickly becomes the object of mystery to Josef who amuses himself and his nurse with wild speculations about her personal life. She also interests the Spanish chef Simon (Javier Camara) who we realize may have a romantic interest in the silent girl who seems to prefer to keep to herself and seems more than a little drawn to Josef. While most critics compared the film to Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, I felt that a Leconte comparison to The Girl on the Bridge is also warranted as it’s an odd love story without much in the way of information being released directly to the audience save for a revealing final act. We wade through the first hour enticed but mostly lost, with only the deft acting of Polley and a frankly disturbing child-like voice over narration (that felt more like it belonged in a David Lynch film than here) to guide us until finally she and Josef reveal more of their characters. Winner of numerous accolades and nominations throughout Latin America (including Goya awards and others), the film also did quite well at the Venice Film Festival and even though we are left with more questions than answers and at times the lack of revelation about Hanna seems rather pretentious on Coixet’s part, it’s still the best film she’s made thus far that I’ve seen and makes her a filmmaker to watch. In addition, The Secret Life of Words cements the fascinating and fiercely talented Polley as not only one of cinema’s most talented young actresses working today, able to disappear into whatever role she plays but also as a woman who admirably is known for her work onscreen as opposed to the frequent paparazzi run-ins or DUI’s that populate some of America’s young starlets in movies today.