The Secret Life of Words

Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriters: Isabel Coixet

Institute History

  • 2006 Sundance Film Festival


Hanna, a mysterious, introverted young nurse, accepts a job caring for perceptive, ironic Josef, a temporarily blind burn victim, on an oil rig in the Irish Sea. Nonoperational, the desolate rig is sparsely inhabited by a crew of loners, with only the roaring waves and a resident goose for distraction. As Hanna tends Josef's wounds, it soon becomes clear he's desperate to divulge secrets—as if words and transparency will free him from his sightless, immobile state. Meanwhile, Hanna remains protectively silent, listening acutely but revealing little, and Josef never demands more. Incrementally, a sense of mutual recognition and empathy unfolds between them, gently evaporating shields of distrust and cynicism.

The Secret Life of Words, Isabel Coixet's intensely perceptive, wrenchingly cathartic love story, is about the need for human interdependence and the power of silence and speech to transcend trauma. There is endless pleasure in observing subtle, yet electric, exchanges between Hanna and Josef, played superbly by Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins. Though many of the crucial moments occur in Josef's isolated sick bay, Coixet's vision is never too claustrophobic or sober. The action whisks us to Copenhagen, to a quirky Spanish chef's kitchen, and across the wide-open monochromatic sea, which is like a newly blank slate upon which Hanna and Josef's future will be written.

— Caroline Libresco

Screening Details

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