Some people carry with them deep scars, physical and emotional, that shape the rest of their lives. We’re often too busy to notice these people as they pass us, serve us and perhaps work with us every day. “The Secret Life of Words” follows a person who says and reveals little about herself, and investigates who she really is.
Set largely on an oil rig amongst a multinational staff, the film stars Sarah Polly as an introverted factory worker who returns to her profession of nursing when union rules force the never-late, never-sick employee to take a vacation. By chance, she finds work on an oil rig, where, after a fire that killed one person and badly burned another (Tim Robbins), the remaining employees are basically waiting for word from the higher-ups to shut down operations.
There, her charge is caring for the burn victim until he gets better or needs to fly to a hospital. They have a series of conversations that are sometimes clever and sometimes feel like screenwriting exercises about the details of life, but are always well acted.
As she bonds with her patient, she also becomes part of the ship’s international community, which also includes a cook who ought to be working at a fancy restaurant, an insightful commander, a quiet man who plays basketball and some characters whom you might actually expect to find on an oil rig.
Structurally, a revelation about a character that is held secret until the third act creates some frustration during the actual viewing (and still now, since I have to be overly vague in defending it). But upon deeper reflection, the film actually becomes a commentary on general ignorance to the problem, and perhaps a critique on the audience that didn’t recognize any of the signs, much like the other characters in the film.