Nobody Has to Know feels from the offset that there is something simmering just under the surface, an interesting story that feels like it will poke its head through at any time. And yet, it never really does. This British, Belgian, French co-production is an intimate romantic drama from Belgian filmmaker and actor Bouli Lanners with his English language debut, that always feels like it’s about to touch on something truly fascinating and interrogate it thusly, but never really dives as far into it to make much of an impact or feels like there is reason enough for this story to be told. As beautiful as it looks, as well acted as it is, as endearing it is to see an aging couple find romance, there just never feels like a solid throughline to really pull this piece together.
The film centres around Millie (Michelle Fairley) and Belgian, Philippe (writer/director Lanners also starring here), two middle-aged people living on an isolated Scottish island. Phil works for Millie’s father (Julian Glover) on his farm with Millie’s brother (Cal MacAninch) and nephew (Andrew Still). However, when Phil has a stroke, resulting in amnesia, he slowly has to remember the life he has constructed for himself on this island. This is when Millie drops on him that they were lovers, leading to the couple building a romance together, though not all is as it seems.
Lanners, credited as director, alongside veteran TV director Tim Mielants, who is credited as the Shooting Director, and cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, come to the table with some really beautiful filmmaking on a visual side. If Nobody Has to Know does one thing well, it serves up some incredible visual work. Whether it is the gorgeous vistas of the Scottish isles, or a simple interior shot, complexly crafted in clever, yet simple ways. It’s a really beautifully shot film that is so keyed into the visual language of two people finding light in the most isolated of places, and their emotional sense of each other and the world around them.
It’s such a shame though that the story itself doesn’t feel as well constructed. Co-written with Stéphane Malandrin, Lanners’ script somewhat feels aimless and meandering. There is a really interesting story at the core of this film, a beautiful ode to love, mortality and fear of not being able to confess your feelings before it’s too late, there’s something so intensely compelling about watching a middle-aged couple’s blooming relationship, especially one that isn’t afraid of showing their sexuality too. But much of the film feels like it meanders and avoids the tough drama points that underpin the story. There is this consistent tension to the film surrounding the question of whether Millie and Phil really did have this relationship before he lost his memory. However, neither that tension nor the sweetness of the romance is never is enough to bring the film to life. All the while, it feels like it draws much of its fairly short runtime (99 minutes) out, teasing out every single second it can in every scene. While this could be rather peaceful and meditative, every drawn-out second can be felt, especially when the film feels like it lacks a true core to its storytelling, only a shell of a romantic drama.
It doesn’t necessarily help that Lanners and Mielants direct with intent for restraint. Every scene is full of restraint and subdued craft, from the filmmaking to the performances, the directors really keep a tight leash and never let the film burst. It’s clearly a very deliberate choice, and for the first half of the film, it’s rather understandable. These are people who have trouble conveying their emotions, they are somewhat emotionally repressed, and generally intense individuals. But it feels like too much at times, like there’s little leeway when it comes to the emotionality, it’s stoic and held back. Even in the times where passion seeps through in secret, it feels somewhat studious, like Lanners and Mielants want the audience to watch on without embracing this curious couple, even if, as an audience member, you want to.
That being said, the performances here do keep it together for the most part. The supporting cast are all good, especially a very grumpy (in a fairly entertaining way) Julian Glover. When it comes to the two leads though, there’s something innately watchable about them. Lanners carries an air of mystery around him like few actors can, all the while having this kindly allure. He’s strangely charming, and conveys a hidden heart, even when the script doesn’t necessarily bring an emotional touch. Likewise, Fairley brings stoicism to Millie that isn’t confrontational, but somewhat sad and melancholy. It’s a gorgeous performance that goes above and beyond to execute what is asked of her, even if what is being asked of her isn’t necessarily the most emotionally connected.
Nobody Has to Know has something there that feels like it should be a really interesting, heartfelt watch. It felt like it was just ready to burst free, in every sense, yet it’s so held back, by the writing never interrogating and connecting with its characters enough, by the characters being so stoic and restrained, by never really letting the audience into these characters lives, but holding them at safe studying distance, it lacks the emotion to really become invested in this relationship. For all of its gorgeous cinematography and potentially interesting ideas, Nobody Has to Know feels like it just tells its story without much to ground it thematically, rather than just aimlessly moving towards an end goal, failing to really flourish.
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