It is always a joy to find a DVD in the videostore that is completely an unknown entity, only to discover upon viewing it that it is a little masterpiece of cinematic art. Such is the case with THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, and having seen the film now raises the question of how it went unnoticed in the theater release. Though touted on the cover as an 'Almodóvar film', in reality it's connection to the genius lies in the fact that both Pedro and his brother Agustín Almodóvar were executive producers: the film was written and directed by Spanish artist Isabel Coixet (Paris, je t'aime, Invisibles, My Life Without Me). It is a minimalist statement about the indomitable human spirit, a story that slowly unwinds to reveal some of the most terrifying aspects of trauma of war and guilt and shame ever written.
Hanna (Sarah Polley, in a phenomenal performance) is a deaf, silent reclusive young woman working as a line operator in a factory, so married to her meaningless job that her boss insists she take a vacation she deserves. Hanna does as she's told, and journeys to a seaside spot where she hears about a man on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean who is severely burned and needs a nurse. Hanna quietly takes the job, is flown by the doctor (Steven Mackintosh) to the isolated oil rig, populated with only a few men - cook Simon (Javier Cámara of 'Hable con ella', 'La Mala educación, 'Lucía y el sexo' etc), oceanographer and workers (Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, Dean Lennox Kelly, Danny Cunningham, Emmanuel Idowu) and a captain (Steven Mackintosh), and meets her patient Josef (Tim Robbins) who is temporarily blinded from burns to his corneas, and severely burned on his limbs.
Josef seeks to discover information from Hanna, but Hanna shares nothing about herself, spending her time dressing Josef's wounds, feeding him and tending to his needs. He slowly reveals his painful past to her (he was burned in an accident in which his best friend was burned to death, the friend whose wife had become Josef's lover!). Hanna is treated well by the few men on the isolated rig and learns to eat the exotic foods prepared by Simon, becoming friends with the crew, though at a distance, and gradually Hanna speaks with Josef about herself. In a painful confessional Hanna reveals that she is Bosnian and a survivor of the Balkan war, a hideous time when she and her close friend were captured, tortured and raped, leaving Hanna with physical as well as psychic scars and an enormous feeling of shame that her friend died and she survived. This knowledge bonds Hanna and Josef, but by this point it is time for Josef to be medevaced to a hospital onshore and the two part company. After some time has passed and Josef has recovered, he begins his search for Hanna and the journey and its finale serve as a touching end to the story.
The cast is uniformly brilliant, including a small role of Hanna's therapist played convincingly by Julie Christie. The metaphors the tale offers are many, but the most moving is an examination of how the human mind deals with survival and shame after trauma. Director Isabel Coixet draws such subtle performances from the entire cast in this very small film, proving she is one of the more important artists in film making today. Very Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, May 07