Sarah Polley gives a wonderfully searching performance, as a woman in a state of extreme isolation, in "The Secret Life of Words," a compellingly claustrophobic drama set mostly aboard an oil rig. Altogether more challenging than helmer Isabel Coixet's previous movie, "My Life Without Me," in which Polley also starred, pic tackles its big theme -- silence as a defense against tragedy -- with delicacy, sympathy and originality, sans the sentimentality that threatened "My Life." "Words" looks likely to make itself heard at fests and on the international arthouse circuit.
Hanna (Sarah Polley), who wears a hearing aid, is timid, insecure and living a solitary existence. She has worked for four years in a factory without a break -- a fact that makes her colleagues uneasy. Her boss (Reg Wilson) suggests she take a month off, and Hanna, though uneasy at the prospect, heads for a coastal town in Northern Ireland.
There, in a restaurant, she overhears Victor (Eddie Marsan) in a phone conversation about an accident on a nearby oil rig for which he is responsible. The survivor, Josef (Tim Robbins), needs treatment, and when Hanna tells Victor she's a nurse, she is -- rather implausibly -- flown immediately to the rig. She finds Josef lying in bed with multiple burns (graphic make-up work by Ana Lopez-Puigcerver) and damage to his corneas, meaning he's going to be blind for a couple of weeks.
The rig's other inhabitants are bouncy Spanish cook Simon (Javier Camara), who prepares haute cuisine that's not to the others' taste; gentle, older Dimitri (Sverre Anker Ousdal), who recognizes and responds to Hanna's air of solitude; and introverted, ecological Martin (Daniel Mays), who's studying the number of times waves strike the rig, but whose real interest is the freak tropical mussels he pulls up from its base. Other characters are of less interest, but Hanna has intuitively recognized that there may be a place for her among these loners.
Pic's real focus is the beautifully played, trembling exchanges between Hanna and the intelligent, self-deprecating Josef -- an all-round good guy who got his burns by trying to save someone else. The fact he never tells Hanna this reveals plenty about his nature and morals, and the script is carefully managed so that what the characters don't say -- particularly in Hanna's case -- is more significant than what they do. Hence the film's title.
In their relationship's early stages, Josef asks Hanna whether, for reasons that later become clear, he can call her "Cora." Josef does all the talking, the fact that he's blind allowing him to take verbal liberties, spin off into amusing, surreal flights of fancy, and tell her the secret stories of his life, which reveal surprising bonds between them. Hanna, on the other hand, is frustratingly tight-lipped. When she finally smiles at something Josef's said, it's a big moment.
The mysteries about Hanna's behavior accumulate. Where is she from, and why is she in Ireland? Why does she telephone Inge (Julie Christie), a woman in Denmark -- and then say nothing? Why does she not tell Josef her real name? The truth about her -- for the viewer as well as for Josef -- is not revealed until an intense, though not altogether unexpected, scene in which she opens the verbal floodgates, and both thesps outdo themselves.
Playing, as in "My Life," a woman at the end of her emotional tether, Polley manages to maintain the viewer's interest most of the time in a character about whom we know practically zero. She is superbly otherworldly, transmitting a fragility that, given pic's location, is an inevitable reminder of Emily Watson's character in Lars Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." Immobile for most of pic, Robbins does well to bring Josef alive as a character. Of the other thesps, Camara stands out as the comic relief.
The discomforts of life aboard the vast, impersonal rig, and the absurdity of being stuck on a huge hunk of metal with people who don't really like each other, are nicely evoked in several scenes -- an impromptu karaoke evening, and Martin's lonely basketball games. However, Coixet does have a tendency to over-exploit whimsy, as in the unexplained presence of a goose on the rig.
Some impressively lensed linking-sequences break up the narrative, using fine songs from the likes of Clem Snide and David Byrne as background. (There's little in the way of a regular score.) As in "My Life," literary refs abound, particularly to Brit writer John Berger.
Sound work from Aitor Berenguer makes an important contribution to the atmosphere of the rig. On the negative side, there are a couple of minor plot inconsistencies, and the twee, pretentious voiceover that opens and closes the pic could have been cut, as it saps crucial power from the coda.
Camera (color), Jean Claude Larrieu; editor, Irene Blecua; art director, Pierre-Francois Limbosch; sound (Dolby Digital), Aitor Berenguer. Reviewed at Warner Sogefilm screening room, Madrid, Aug. 26, 2005. (In Venice Film Festival, Horizons.) Running time: 112 MIN.