There are some things that defy and/or reject the use of words, some occurrences in life that just refuse to be caged within the frames of meaning and logic. Still, philosophers and writers stake their faith in words and its cathartic effects; Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that to “speak and express oneself is the best defense one has against the encroaching world.” Hannah, in “The Secret Life of Words” would disagree — her means of defense is to stay silent and closed, mindful of a flower bud buried under several feet of snow, unyielding and curled like an angry fist.

Hannah works in a factory somewhere in Britain and she leads a totally solitary existence. Every day she brings the same lunch of chicken, rice and apple. What she leaves over from lunch she eats for dinner. Her evenings are spent needle-pointing, which she trashes as soon as it’s done. She has no furniture and seems to need no sleep. Sometimes she gets letters she doesn’t open and and makes calls to the sender of those letters without uttering a single word.

Directed by Spain’s Isabel Coixet (“My Life Without Me”), “The Secret” (partly based on the events of the Balkans War in the early 1990s) is a tale of enormous pain and sacrifice, and ultimately, of revival. There’s nothing new in the underlying message and there’s an occasional lapse into banal sentiment, but that takes nothing away from the fact that this is an extraordinarily moving work. As is Coixet’s style, she stays close and intimate with her protagonist Hannah (portrayed with both guts and subtlety by Sarah Polley), never attempting to place her in any political guise. This is Hannah’s story all the way, showing how she deals (or not) with unspeakable experiences and still finds the resources necessary to go on living.

The Secret Life of Words
Director Isabel Coixet
Run Time 114 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (Feb. 23, 2007)

Hannah’s method of coping is to dig herself into a hole; the depth of her interior darkness is such that at the factory she hasn’t taken a day off in four years. Her colleagues freak out and lodge a complaint whereby her boss orders her to take a month off. (“Go someplace warm, with palm trees and aerobics in the pool!”). Reluctantly, Hannah boards a bus for a town that’s even lonelier and colder than hers and once there, ends up volunteering as a nurse aboard an oil rig moored on the coast. The rig recently had a fire and one man had died, another was badly injured. Silently, she goes about caring for the immobile Joseph (Tim Robbins) who is temporarily blind, but still perky enough to wisecrack and flirt (“You’re a blonde, right? I can tell from your voice.”) As ever, Hannah does the job with dexterity but remains flat-out unresponsive to Joseph’s attempts. The same goes for everyone else on the rig who try to be friendly in way or another — they go up against a wall of silence that for Hannah is her only means of defense.

“The Secret Life of Words” is in the end a love story but not the kind we’re familiar with; it charts the process of Hannah (and then, Joseph) learning to trust and love, the act of living in this world. The time she spends on the rig comes off like a courtship — gradually, life persuades her to stop leaning against the wall and dance, if only for a while. The brilliance of the story is in the unlikeliness of Hannah’s surroundings; as the rig doctor (Steven Macintosh) assures her, “It’s cold, it stinks and it’s unbelievably damp.” Coixet does nothing to beautify the frames — the rig is all rust, steel and metal, where the perpetual sea-wind mercilessly wilts a plant of basil leaves left on a staircase in a matter of minutes. Nothing alleviates the complete nothingness of the vast Northern Sea or the rig’s dreary daily routine, but this is where Hannah begins to listen to people’s words, eat food (fortunately the chef is a gourmand), read, sit on a swing slung from two masts on deck and feel the wind in her hair. It’s where she becomes moved by Joseph’s plight, cracks a rare smile at his jokes and really begins to care about his recovery. The most sensual moment in the film comes when Hannah clears Joseph’s tray and discovers he has hardly touched the dessert. Outside the sickroom and in the dank, gray corridor, she dips the spoon into the pudding and cautiously lifts it to her mouth. And then she’s eating, ferociously, voluptuously, almost as if she’s making love.

Up until the final five minutes, Hannah’s environment is all blacks and grays and dirt-browns, but you can see that despite all this she herself slowly becomes tinged with color. Coixet saves all brightness for the final five minutes when the frame literally becomes awash with color. Even then, it’s not anything garish but a subdued but brilliant blue — the flower has finally pushed its away out of all that snow to quietly take in the sun.

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