Jeez, there’s nothing like crying like a little girl to make your night complete.
The Secret Life of Words starts out with Hanna, a quiet factory worker who keeps to herself and lives a life of solitude and repetition. Her bosses order her to take a holiday after fellow workers complain that she’s anti-social, so she takes a small trip and instead finds herself volunteering to become a sick nurse on board an offshore oil rig during her holiday. A detached person who seems to have little connection to anyone or anything, she arrives on the rig which is full of assorted, colorful characters. Her patient is Josef, a rig worker who jumped into a fiery blaze to save a fellow worker, and Josef’s off-color remarks and jokes thaw Hanna a bit. However, both of them turn out to be very broken people who have trouble reconciling their lives.
The Secret Life of Words is very, very good, make no mistake. Instead of telling you everything, it shows you bit by bit, piece by piece as the true stories of Hanna and Josef unfold and are far more compelling and tragic than anything I could’ve imagined on my own. You can see the thought that went into the movie, right down to the minor details of Hanna’s job to examining what she eats every day. It could well be tedious, but the scenes are framed so that they’re a very intriguing look into the structure an emotionally demolished person gives her life.
I never understood the Sarah Polley love before now. I’d seen her in a couple of assorted roles and I had always felt fairly underwhelmed by her, but now I get it. I get it one hundred and ten percent – she is, quite frankly, astonishing. Not only is she playing a survivor of the Balkan Wars, complete with accent, but ninety percent of the movie there’s no dialogue for Polley to rely on as a crutch. There’s no overbroad gestures or emotional hysterics for her to play up. Everything Polley does in this movie comes from her eyes and the extremely subtle, extremely rare affectations she gives her character. In short, Polley’s performance as Hanna is about as good as it gets.
Tim Robbins has always been a weird actor to me. I don’t detest Robbins by any stretch, but I found him tiring at best. Even when people played up how utterly great he was in Mystic River, I had no idea what all the hullabaloo was about. To me, Robbins was just kind of…there.
He does very well in this one. He takes an equally challenging part of a bedridden, burned oil rig worker who’s a bit rough around the edges and slowly peels back the layers of his character so that before you know it, Josef is a completely different person than you thought he was without jarring or disturbing the viewer. He gives as good as Polley does, with one small slip-up, in my opinion, but it’s a negligible one at best. Robbins is seriously impressive and astonishingly good; he is far better than I ever gave him credit for.
The direction is an odd thing because it’s noticeable, but simultaneously it’s not. You feel as though you’re almost totally an observer but at certain key moments the direction breaks to highlight some small detail, like an apple or a bar of soap, which is a tiny thing that speaks largely of the characters themselves.
Normally I have issues with bits of dialogue in movies like these, for films in this vein usually have hackneyed or wince-worthy moments that completely take me out of what’s happening. In the entire film, there was just one scene like this, and it was the negligible Tim Robbins scene I mentioned above. In truth, I’m sure lesser actors would’ve made some of the lines seem a lot more wobbly, but Robbins and Polley are so extremely good at what they’re doing that the words don’t sound hollow or staged.
Mainly, The Secret Lives of Words examines several things and examines them well: What does one do when you’ve suffered trauma so great that life will never be the same? How do you live with yourself? How do you stop existing and go on living? There’s an enormous difference between saying words and feeling them, and The Secret Life of Words is a tremendous film about two people attempting to heal in so many ways through their actions, rather than their words.
It’s excellent and well worth the time to watch.
A big round of thanks to J.D. for recommending it.