In acting, as in life, the ability to listen is perennially underrated. A talented actor's gifts are sometimes deemed mysterious, but often it is less look-at-me line readings than an authentic relationship with the world -- more critically the sounds, the words -- surrounding him or her that reveal character, forge connection. Perhaps we all wish to be listened to so well, with such passion; in acting, as in life, a good listener evokes an almost primal response. Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins are challenged, in Isabel Coixet's sparsely drawn, strangely sensual The Secret Life of Words, to develop a connection during long dialogues in which Polley, playing a nearly deaf nurse more comfortable with her hearing aid turned off, listens with her eyes and her fingertips, while Robbins, a burn patient temporarily blind from his injuries, is keenly attuned to her silences -- more frequent than her words -- listening with the set of his mouth, twist of his neck, and the quick lines fanning at his cheeks.
As Hanna, Polley uses her million mile eyes to suggest the stillness and the silence of her character's existence, which can be mapped out in the footsteps between her home and her factory job, precisely controlled portions of her meals, and stacks of almond-scented soap –- one for every wash –- lining her bathroom. The tight cask of silence is a comfort to the girl, it seems, and she defends it with the tenacity of the gravely wounded; though she speaks with an Eastern European accent, Hanna lives in Ireland, and when her boss, unnerved by her years of uninterrupted service, demands she take a month's vacation, she is at a loss as to how to exist outside the confines of routine.
Through a rather convoluted series of events -- moreso when we learn her history -- Hanna finds herself on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, the only woman among a crew of men recovering from an on-site fire which killed one worker and badly injured Josef, played by Robbins. Hanna, a former nurse, volunteers to tend to Josef until he can be moved to the shore, and finds him to be a willing, if voluble, patient; there is clearly more life in Josef, blinded and burned raw, than there has been in Hanna for quite some time. The rig, a bleak palette of inky grays and fresh rust, is also populated by an ambitious Chilean cook, shy oceanographer, reclusive foreman and a pair of workers who may also be closeted gaymates.
Robbins, hitting unlikely, deeply romantic grace notes with another pint-sized blonde (see the brilliant and underappreciated Code 46, with Samantha Morton), has a sweetly hulking quality (even when bedridden) and a stubborn bloom of a face; combined, in Josef, with an all-American bawdiness, his desperation to draw Hanna out is magnetic. Polley is the soul of conflicted restraint as Hanna, sizing up her compulsively chatty opponent: it's not that she doesn't have the words he seeks, if facetiously; indeed, they have been living the secret life of the title inside of her. Somehow Josef, harboring a secret of his own, provides both the perfect storm and safe harbor for Hanna and the unspeakable words she has to share.
"Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?" Hitler asked his officers, arguing the inconsequence of wiping out Poland. Julie Christie, playing a war crimes case counselor, repeats the quote to Josef, who is by the end of the film a man blindsided by the power of Hanna's story as well as by her healing touch. The insidiousness of silence is a friend to evils past, present and by extension, as the Fuhrer pointed out, future; for Hanna, puncturing it is a personal revelation, while for the film it is stressed as a moral imperative. Though the balance Coixet attempts to strike between her characters, their histories and the sudden weight of world history can be an uneasy one, the film succeeds mainly as a story of the connective, regenerative tissue between words and silence on the level strength of its listeners.
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