The movie is best described as a polished cross between Unfaithful (2002) and Evelyn Prentice (1934), only it falls short because there's no moral dilemma or rooting love interest.
It starts with a man riding a bike down a lovely, quiet pastoral lane. Then, there's a loud, discordant blast. He's violently thrown from the bike and blood seeps from his chest, leaving a large stain on his white shirt. Cue the opening credits.
Anne is married to the impossible-to-please solicitor James. Tom Wilkinson plays James with a brusque, Nixon-like disapproval that helps one understand why Anne is frustrated in her marriage, but (Bill) the younger man to whom she becomes attached is so thoroughly unlikeable that it's impossible to comprehend her desire for or loyalty to him. She enjoys his disdain, especially when its directed at her husband. When she joins with Bill in ridiculing a picture hanging on their parlor wall -- a picture that she herself hung -- James is livid. He tells her he hates that she has ganged up against him, two against one. He immediately senses that she is using this outsider to stage a quiet rebellion against him that she alone would never have undertaken. His reaction may look like anger, but it feels like pain.
Later, when her affair with Bill is revealed and she finds herself unable to end it, Anne says she doesn't understand the draw to him herself. She wonders if it's lust or love, but concludes it doesn't matter: either way she can't give him up. We never really see Bill and Anne alone together (except when they're spied by James, through a rainy glass) and don't know if there's a soul lurking behind his languid facade. Anne assures her husband that Bill really doesn't care much about her and that that's the pull. He's not meticulous like James. He doesn't have expectations of her, so she can relax with him. That's her excuse for the infatuation, anyway. I began to think she only wanted to hurt James for all of his demands and commands and used Bill as a passive form of revenge that was never acknowledged in the movie. As a result, based on the motivations as I perceived them, I wanted something from the characters that the movie saw no need to deliver. My interest and the movie's plot followed separate lines.
While workaholic James is in London, a tipsy Anne runs down a bicycler, while she's driving Bill's car during a lover's joyride. The cyclist turns out to be the husband of Anne's housekeeper. James notices a dent on Bill's car and suspects he was the hit and run driver. When James confronts Bill and insists that Bill do the right thing, Bill agrees to confess his guilt to the police. It's only after James returns home and tells Anne of Bill's plans that she reveals that she was the one driving the car -- and that she has also been sleeping with Bill. In the movie's best scene, James responds to this news by saying he's sorry and quickly heading outside to vomit. Despite the polite appearances, he's not just apologizing for his nausea, but instantly suspects his own fault, even before assigning any blame to her, feeling that he drove Anne to infidelity. The problem is, although she initially denies James did anything wrong, it's clear that she thinks he's responsible for her problems too and at that point in the movie, Anne becomes just as unlikeable as Bill to me, while James is increasingly sympathetic, though not necessarily in the movie's eyes. He keeps having to pay penance, until the end. Anne doesn't.
Anne is often distressed, so we're supposed to think that she's torn with guilt over having killed her housekeeper's husband. But if she really was, why did she leave the scene of the accident in the first place; then host a party that same evening; pretend to console the cyclist's worried wife at the hospital; remain silent about her own participation when he died; and only declare that she really wanted to admit she was the driver, after James pressed her beloved Bill to confess to the crime?
Although he was merciless when he thought Bill was the driver, faced with his wife culpability, James tells Anne to keep quiet about the accident. She says she's willing to take her punishment, but he counters that she won't be the only one to suffer. His reputation will also be smeared, if his wife is imprisoned. Why is it different now that he knows she's the driver, she asks? Anne points out that James wouldn't have cared if Bill had gone to jail and hurt his family. Why should their family be spared? Seemingly stunned by his hypocrisy, Anne insists that she wishes James wouldn't keep forcing her to remain silent. But she was silent long before James found out. I don't think he's the one forcing her. Moreover, it's rather obvious that although he told her that she should keep silent for his sake, his true concern is for her. It's possible even he does not realize how much he loves her, but his regard is becoming transparent to the audience.
This is reminiscent of the Dedlocks in Bleak House. The depth and unconditional nature of Sir Leicester's love stunned the reader, who'd pegged him as cold and superficial. Similarly, James was cold and curt, but not uncaring; we spend the last half of the movie watching those surface layers fall away. But there were never that many layers to begin with. Maybe it's because his heart was always so close to his sleeve, that he was so persnickety about small things like cuffs. He controlled minutiae, because his emotions could not be reined as easily. This man was never like James Stevens in Remains of the Day. This James was always distant, but never inaccessible.
If James could be compared to Leicester Dedlike, unlike his wife Honoria, there is less to Anne Manning than first meets the eye, not more. Maybe she repressed so much, for so long, that in the end there is little left inside, to hold in or give out. She seems to have a sense of obligation, but not of right and wrong.
Anne lies to the police and lets James lie for her, all while continuing her affair with Bill, which tryst involves them speeding recklessly through the country side in the same car in which they have already killed a man. She has the nerve to object when James lashes out at her, he replies he has only three options: suicide, bitterness or to say he's glad to be rid of her. He says he can't quite bear to do the latter, so bitterness is all he has left. If Anne had ever loved James, this would have been the point where she put him out of his misery either by breaking it off with him completely or finally separating from Bill. Apparently she can do neither. She plans a racing jaunt in Paris with her lover, but also wants to meet up with her husband while there. She seems to be seeking an open marriage. He declines.
While playing the victim, it's clear to the me that Anne always had the upper hand in that marriage. She ran the house the way he wanted, waited on him, catered to him, but was also able to bend him to her will every time she took a stand. Problem is, she took so few of them.
After Anne tearfully tells the cyclist's widow that she was responsible for the accident, she leaves Bill, but it's not because she loves James. Rather, with one weight off of her chest, she wants to free herself completely. She's just tired of feeling guilty and remaining with her husband is the less culpable choice. Somehow, her feelings are always paramount. It becomes tedious having James with this selfish martyr, especially when he has a caring secretary who seems like she'd actually want his company, not suffer it.
By chance, James learns that Bill is dying of cancer. He can keep the news to himself or tell Anne and risk having her run back to Bill, as Bill smugly predicts she will. James can tell her the truth and lose her again. I'm left wondering why all of them, Bill, James and Anne believe that Anne leaving James is any big loss. Faced with the choice of being honest or preserving his complacent marriage, James tells Anne about Bill and she promptly packs to be with her dying lover, but not without a parting shot: demanding to know why James keeps setting tests for her, when he knows she always fails them. Once again, she doesn't take responsibility for her own decision to go. She was forced to in response to James the Brute's domineering nature! Unfortunately, James himself seems to buy this.
Maybe he felt sorry for Bill. Maybe he wanted Anne to be with the man she loved. Maybe it wasn't a test.
In the end, it's easy to believe that Bill truly cared for Anne, since he was willing to confess to a vehicular crime he did not commit to save her and ready to die without her ever knowing he was ill. He told James that she should remain happy in her ignorance. There was probably something selfless behind his cavalier exterior. He loved Anne. She loved Bill, but who loved James? Anne confessed to the hit and run, yet the movie ended with me feeling that no one had ever held her responsible. Emotionally, the bicycle accident was the least of her crimes.
Open Question: The reason that the housekeeper, Maggie, was able to forgive Anne for lying about her husband's death is that Anne hired her when no one else would. Maggie had been convicted of theft and had not worked for 8 years. When Bill returns to his home town after years working in New York, we learn that he and Maggie are not strangers. She used to work for his family. Still later, we learn that Bill was the witness against her in the theft trial. Yet, when they first met, it was Bill who looked evasive and guilty, not Maggie. One sensed her dislike of Bill, but not shame, not even anger. I kept waiting to learn that Bill had falsely accused Maggie. Maybe he'd stolen from his own family to support his debauchery and then blamed the missing items on the maid. The movie never says this is the case, but Maggie never admits to stealing either. She talks about her conviction, not the crime. Moreover, if there is distrust between Maggie and Bill, it is on her side, not his. But what can she do? Class divide is not a theme in the movie, but it's not absent from it. This is evident when the police inspector vents at Maggie, for protecting Anne and changing her story about whose car struck down her husband. He pleads with her not to lie for them, because they wouldn't do it for her. In the end, her graditude towards Anne seems misplaced.
Side note: I shrieked a little when I saw John Neville's name in the opening credits. He played Bill's doting father. Oh, it's been 12 years since I've seen my beloved "Well Manicured Man" and I've missed him like crazy. Don't think that seeing him in an English country house with his grandchildren didn't remind me of a certain scene in Fight the Future . . .