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THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, written and directed by Isabel Coixet, follows Hanna (Sarah Polley), a factory worker who lives alone in a barren apartment, wears a hearing-aid, and keeps to herself with a rigorous daily routine of identical meals, a fresh bar of soap every day, and needlepoint work at night.  While on an extended holiday in Northern Ireland, she volunteers as a nurse, tending to a burn victim Josef (Tim Robbins) stationed on an oil rig.  While Hanna coaxes him back to health, Josef, who has suffered temporary blindness, reaches out to her urgently, wanting to connect. As his brutish and passionate demeanor contrasts sharply with Hanna's solemn and quiet manner, Hanna initially refuses to reveal anything about herself, even her real name. But she soon she starts to recognize parallels between her own isolation and that of the others on the oil rig. She eventually grows to care for Josef and shares with him a painfully severe secret from her past that opens wounds, and doors, for the two strangers from different worlds to come together and help heal one another. With the shaky-camera technique, absence of a film score, and the backdrop of a lone oil rig, writer and director Coixet (who also wrote and directed Polley in the 2003 critically-acclaimed MY LIFE WITHOUT ME), emphasizes the vulnerability and seclusion of the characters. Robbins and Polley turn in compelling performances; and a strong supporting cast that includes Javier Camara (TALK TO HER) and Eddie Marsan (THE ILLUSIONIST).


Polley was nominated as Best European Actress by the European Film Academy for her performance in this film.

She Will Not Speak. Words Fail Her.
Published: December 15, 2006
In “The Secret Life of Words,” the radiant Canadian actress Sarah Polley shrinks into the role of Hanna, a crumpled, hearing-impaired young factory worker with an Eastern European accent who lives somewhere in Britain. Numbly discharging the rituals of daily life, Hanna rarely speaks and prefers to seal herself in silence by turning off her hearing aid.
Only once does she reach out, by telephoning a mysterious older woman (Julie Christie, compelling in a cameo role) who we later learn lives in Denmark and works for a human rights organization. Even then, Hanna doesn’t speak.
Her drab routine — each day at lunchtime she consumes the same bland meal of chicken, rice and half an apple — is interrupted by a summons from her boss, who commends her for punctuality and perfect attendance in the four years she has worked at the factory. But her rigidity and remoteness and her refusal to take time off, he says, have prompted complaints from her co-workers; she must take a vacation.
Thus begins Hanna’s awakening. The movie, written and directed by the Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, whose last feature, “My Life Without Me,” also starred Ms. Polley, prolongs the mystery of her identity until well after the halfway point. Then it explodes into a catharsis.
While on holiday in a coastal town in Northern Ireland, Hanna overhears a cellphone conversation about a flash fire at an offshore oil rig that killed one man and left another seriously burned and in need of care. Volunteering her services as a nurse, she is flown to the rig and meets the burn victim, Josef (Tim Robbins), who suffered corneal damage that has left him temporarily blind.
A tattooed roughneck with a kind heart, Josef is flirtatious, playful and life-loving. From the moment Hanna appears, he bombards her with questions that she refuses to answer. When she won’t even give her name, he dubs her Cora. He describes her as having “a blonde voice” and the clean scent of almond soap.
Some of his questions are extremely forward: Does she prefer men who are uncircumcised? When she plays dumb, he begins confiding his own secrets, including the fact that the name Cora belongs to his best friend’s wife, and that he can’t swim. Almost imperceptibly, she begins to warm.
At long last, Hanna, in a small, quiet voice, delivers a shattering soliloquy whose details remain seared in your mind long after the movie is over. As Josef absorbs the shock of her confession and begins to shudder with sobs, he gathers her in his arms, and the exquisitely coordinated performances elicit an empathy as powerful as anything I can remember feeling in a recent film.
“The Secret Life of Words” is much stronger than “My Life Without Me,” in which Ms. Polley played another bruised angel, a wife and mother stricken with cancer and given two months to live who conceals her diagnosis from her family and embarks on a final fling with a man she meets in a Laundromat.
As its title suggests, “The Secret Life of Words” contemplates the insufficiency of language to encapsulate traumatic experience. As eloquent as Hanna’s confession may be, the tearful embrace she shares with Josef conveys far deeper feelings.
The confession, which I leave you to discover for yourself, is the kernel around which this otherwise eccentric film somewhat carelessly wraps itself. Ms. Coixet may be wonderful with actors. But when it comes to the mechanics of storytelling, she is often ungainly and tin-eared. The movie begins on two wrong notes: an abrupt sequence of the fire in which Josef leaps into the flames, and an enigmatic child’s voice-over delivering what sounds almost like gibberish. The identity of that child, who returns for an epilogue that feels unnecessary and grating, isn’t revealed until late in the film.
The movie’s acoustic problems, which are most glaring in these voice-overs, persist through much of the film. In contrast, the score, which intersperses muted jazz with songs by Tom Waits, David Byrne, Antony and the Johnsons and others, is unusually evocative.
“The Secret Life of Words” fitfully diverts its gaze to the other inhabitants of the oil rig, which has been shut down since the fire. As these oddballs and loners, isolated in the middle of a gray churning sea, wait for their future to be disclosed, the movie sketches a parallel world of people in a limbo of isolation and uncertainty. As intriguing as these characters are (especially the chef whose fancy cooking repels the workers and the resident oceanographer obsessed with the mussels that proliferate around the rig), the relationships remain sketchy.
But when “The Secret Life of Words” returns to Hanna and Josef and their struggle to connect and to heal, it glows with humanity.


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