24 February 2006 | gradyharp
The Ensemble Effect
Nigel Balchin's maze-like novel 'A Way Through the Wood' has been adapted by Julian Fellowes who also directs this 'terribly British' drawing room suspense piece. It is a film whose effect relies on the cast portraying the varyingly benign/malignant characters and it is here that Fellowes' directorial choices are superb. The story has a linear line that is easy to follow, but the beauty of the film is the metamorphosis of each player as a single incident ignites a minefield of disasters.
James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) is a successful business obsessed solicitor in London, married to Anne (Emily Watson) who needs more in her life: the couple being childless live in the country in a beautiful estate, assisted by their long term 'cleaner' Maggie (Linda Bassett). They attend social outings and meet, among others, William Bule (Rupert Everett), the passively lazy wealthy neighbor. Anne decides they should entertain their neighbors and against gruff James' protestation Anne proceeds with planning: James arranges to 'not attend due to business'. On the night of the party there is a hit and run accident in which Maggie's husband is accidentally killed by someone in a Range Rover (she observed). When James returns home he sees a scratch on William's Range Rover and suspects William to be the perpetrator. Anne discourages James from going to the police with the information -'what possible good can it do but ruin Bill's life as a socialite and father and son of an important scion?'. From this first 'lie' the virus spreads: James confronts Bill who talks James out of going to the police, Anne confesses it was she who was driving Bill's Rover and is the one responsible, James convinces Anne to keep it quiet because it would ruin his reputation, Anne confesses she is having an affair with Bill, and the three of them concur that they will stick together on their big lie for the sake of the greater good. Anne eventually succumbs to the guilt of not telling her beloved Maggie that she is the one responsible and Maggie, herself guilty of a previous theft whose life was saved by Anne's mercy to hire her anyway, is the agent who draws the story to its surprising conclusion. Lies begat lies that begat lies, et cetera.
The major impact of this intrigue is the manner in which the isolated tragedy impacts each of the characters involved. Each changes in a dramatic way. Tome Wilkinson gives the finest performance of a career filled with brilliant performances: he is able to say more with his posture and facial expressions than about any actor before the audience today. Likewise the gifted Emily Watson adds yet another fine role to her repertoire as does the surprisingly smarmy Rupert Everett who, despite being yet another wealthy British 'gentleman', gives us a man both arid of spirit and yet ultimately needy. And the always-fine Linda Bassett takes a small role and finesses it making her character quietly central to the chaotic web of lies.
The cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts and the musical score by Stanislas Syrewicz add immeasurably to the multiple atmospheres the story encounters. This is ensemble playing at its finest, which always means that the director (Julian Fellowes) has a fine grasp on the piece. The interplay of these fine people makes the dodgy story work very well indeed. Grady Harp