In this quietly powerful movie, a profoundly moral man is faced with a terrible decision, one that becomes increasingly complicated as the story evolves. Successful solicitor James Manning (Tom Wilkinson) has always followed a strict moral code, one that chafes on his all-too-mortal wife, Anne (Emily Watson), who believes he sets impossibly high standards that she will always fail. Attracted to a divorced heir recently returned to the English countryside, the charming, if jaded Billy Bule (Rupert Everett), Anne allows herself to be seduced. Returning home to host a cocktail party after a couple of drinks with Billy while her husband is in London on business, Anne and Billy are involved in a hit and run accident. The victim is Mr. Pierce, the husband of the Manning's housekeeper.
Manning's determined pursuit of the perpetrator leads to unexpected revelations, the most devastating that his wife was driving the vehicle in question. Suddenly the solution becomes personal and Manning's reputation and marriage is on the line, not to mention his anxiety for Anne's well-being. Surprisingly, it is Anne who cannot bear her own failings, riddled with guilt, not because of the affair she fails to end, but because of her betrayal of the widow, Mrs. Pierce, who refuses to believe Anne is at fault in spite of her abject confession. It is the housekeeper's forgiveness that shames them all, freeing them to attend to the business of living, the Manning's attempt to heal a flawed marriage: "She was tired of feeling guilty, so in the end she stayed." When Billy is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Anne fails her husband once more, leaving to minister to the man she loves, the torrid affair turned more tender by necessity.
The juxtaposition of emotions is delicate and thoughtful, the weight of personal guilt palpable, especially for Manning, who is so finely tuned to his moral compass, the one impediment to a successful marriage with a faithless woman. Ultimately, Bule dies and the Manning's come to terms with their loss of one another, moving on to separate lives, but with the peace of having gone from anger and resentment to a common forgiveness. The one act of violence that changes the direction of the Manning's lives is supplanted by a more compassionate view of the human condition and the peril of lies and infidelity. Beautifully nuanced, Wilkinson's performance stands out and Watson is perfection as the not-so-young, conflicted and unhappy wife of a very moral man. Luan Gaines/2006.