David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott & Hope Davis) have a respectable and loving marriage. Both dentists, who met at college, they share a successful private practice in upstate New York and a beautiful home with their three adorable children – on the face of it, an enviable life. Yet little fissures break through the surface of their perfect relationship, suggesting that all might not be quite as well as it seems. While David is utterly devoted to his young daughters, Dana often seems distracted, consumed by her role in a local Verdi opera, distanced also from her family. When David thinks he sees her kissing another man in the theatre, he grows increasingly mistrustful. But rather than face the problem head on, and confront Dana, he dreams up lurid fantasies and imagines an alter-ego in the form of Dennis Leary, a cantankerous patient whose work he botched, who always speaks his mind and now needles David to do the same.
Based on a novella by author Jane Smiley, ‘The Age of Grief’, Secret Lives eschews the tragic-dramatic events of recent ‘family’ films such as In the Bedroom or American Beauty, focusing instead on the more mundane realities of marriage and parenthood. In one prolonged scene the entire family go down with the flu, developing the sickly symptoms in quick succession. While Dana languishes unhelpfully in bed, it’s left to the ever patient David to cope with the whining, the mess, the sleepless nights… Nor is there the harmful ennui of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, nor the chilly loathing of The Ice Storm. Here the couple are dealing with the natural consequences of a long-term relationship that needs to shake itself free from the constraints of complacency, but is still full of hope. For sure, David and Dana mis-communicate, have thoughts they don’t voice, feelings they don’t share: when Dana asks "Do you like me? Do you think we’re friends?" David mistakenly responds with a sexual advance. But that is not his modus operandi, his only mode of exchange, merely the response he thinks she wants. Crucially, there’s genuine love between them and a family that deserves saving, a sentiment borne out by the youngest child’s eventual acceptance of her mother, and David’s own forgiveness.
Despite faultless performances from Hope Davis and Denis Leary, this is ultimately Campbell Scott’s film. A great talent of American (particularly indie) cinema, he has already proved his strength and diversity in a number of key films, from his Hitchcockian ‘wrong’ man in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, to the compellingly caddish womaniser in Roger Dodger. Here he achieves an ‘everyman’ quality, a genuinely nice guy who loves his family and his life, and desperately wants his wife to be satisfied. Scott has mentioned in interviews that he wants to act less and direct more, a loss on the hand to be sure but given his choices as producer or director (The Daytrippers, Big Night, The Dying Gaul), a boon all round for independent cinema targeted at an appreciative niche audience. So, while Secret Lives will hardly reach a mass audience, there is a great deal for its intended viewers to enjoy: credible characters, an involving, slow-burn story, an intelligent script and a resonant subject matter.