Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet has worked with Sarah Polley before, in Coixet's previous film My Life Without Me, where she played a young wife and mother who methodically prepares for her early death. Coixet seems to have a predilection for telling sad stories, and as an actress, golden-haired Polley excels in this department. She rose to international fame, after all, as the adolescent wheelchair girl in one of the saddest movies ever made, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. With the right role, a morose Polley performance is a particular joy to watch. This is the case in The Secret Life of Words.
Polley plays Hanna, a downcast young woman with an Eastern European accent. She works in a plastics factory, talks to no one, lives in a shoe box apartment, and dines on prepared cubes of chicken, packets of white rice, and sliced apples. Her steady, silent presence at the factory causes such discomfort that her manager sends her on a forced vacation. Hanna, however, has no idea how to have a holiday. She goes to the cold, rocky coast of Ireland, and after overhearing a conversation in a restaurant, offers her professional services as a nurse to an injured man who is stranded on an oil rig in Finland (Tim Robbins).
The plots sounds far-fetched, and is, in fact, far fetched, but stranger things have happened. Coixet takes the film into the utterly foreign world of a shut-down oil rig, essentially a small island in the midst of an angry ocean. There's an assorted cast of melancholy characters milling aimlessly around: a rig worker who is also a gourmet chef, an earnest scientist on the oil company's pay roll, two married men who turn to each other in the isolation--and of course, Josef (Robbins) the burn victim in Hanna's care.
Blinded and in enormous amounts of pain, Josef nontheless attempts to engage his nurse in a flirtation. Initially, the reticent Hanna won't play along, but little by little, she does. The give and take between Polley and Robbins is just right. Robbins, an Academy Award winning movie star in a small, quiet film, plays the role with an accomplished mixture of macho bravado and vulnerability. The unexpected coupling of Polley and Robbins, risky on the page, is a tremendous success. Hanna, a scarred survivor of a forgotten war, finds unexpected camaraderie and acceptance on the rig full of disgruntled men. She trades bland morsels of chicken for fresh gnocchi and mascarapone ice cream, and reveals her profoundly disturbing history, handled beautifully by Coixet. Without giving too much away, it's fair to say that The Secret Life of Words is the most satisfying romance of 2006.