Friday October 4, 1996
Mike Leigh's moment, and "Secrets & Lies" is the reason why.
Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes as well as the best actress award for star Brenda Blethyn, "Secrets & Lies" has created torrents of media attention (major articles in Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker, the New York Times and this newspaper) because it both sums up a career and takes it further.
For openers, it ranks with the best of the 14 features Leigh has written and directed in Britain, including "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked," during a quarter-century creative journey that has brought honors but limited American visibility. More than that, it is a piercingly honest, completely accessible piece of work that will go directly to the hearts of audiences who have never heard of him. If film means anything to you, if emotional truth is a quality you care about, this is an event that ought not be missed.
"Secrets & Lies" could in a sense be the subtitle for all of Leigh's films, dealing as they do with the painful yet often ruefully funny complexities of human experience. Here the focus is on the need for understanding, connection and love, on discovering who and what we are. Though the film's basic plot could be tidily summarized in a sentence or two, Leigh's facility with shadings and nuances creates strong and unforgettable waves of feeling.
At the center of "Secrets & Lies" is Cynthia (Blethyn), one of those needy, sentimental, good-hearted people whose desperation puts off those they depend on for support and love. Rarely without a cigarette in her hand or a phrase like "I wouldn't know him if he stood up in me soup" on her lips, Cynthia works in a London box factory and lives in a state of undeclared war with her determinedly surly daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Most strident when she's trying to be useful, Cynthia finds herself repeatedly screeching, "I'm just trying to help," as Roxanne lays into her.
"Secrets & Lies" focuses on the attempts of two different people to get closer to this plaintive but caring woman. One is her brother Maurice (Leigh veteran Timothy Spall), a portrait and wedding photographer who has made a success of his career and his life with his high-strung, house-proud wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan).
All edges and prone to lash out with little provocation, Monica has contributed to easy-going Maurice's long-standing estrangement from his sister, but now the opportunity to give niece Roxanne a 21st birthday party promises to reunite the family at least temporarily.
Then there is Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a tranquil, sophisticated, single black woman who works as an optometrist and seems to have no possible connection to this emotionally impoverished world. But Hortense is adopted and when her mother dies (it's her funeral that opens the picture) she decides to search out her birth mother. Astonishingly, it turns out to be Cynthia.
Nothing illustrates what Leigh's films accomplish and how they do it better than the scene in which Hortense and Cynthia, after a few rushed and awkward conversations on the telephone, sit down side by side and talk it out in a deserted tea shop.
Cynthia, who gave her daughter up after a teenage pregnancy without looking at her, reacts to Hortense's claims by insisting, "There's someone having a joke on you. I'm ever so sorry, sweetheart." If she'd ever had sex with a black man, she would remember.
Then, in a breathtaking moment daringly presented in a rigorous two-shot unbroken by close-ups, that very memory comes back to Cynthia in a furious rush, flooding her face and bringing on uncontrollable weeping. If there are truer, more powerful moments to be found in modern film, they do not come to mind.
The bulk of "Secrets & Lies" is concerned with watching these revelations and the needs they spawn reverberate off the characters' lives, culminating in that chaotic birthday party-barbecue for Roxanne.
Though in outline the film's situations may sound familiar, seeing them play out emphasizes the heart of Leigh's gift. Like a well that goes deeper to get purer water, "Secrets & Lies" stretches the bounds of psychological truth on film, balancing humor and pain without ever tipping over.
This is largely due to Leigh's celebrated method. Using a process of his own devising, he and his actors work together for months to build the film's script from scratch, using extensive improvisation and rehearsal to in effect organically grow the characters and their relationships from the ground up.
As a result, all of Leigh's people, even the ones glimpsed just for a few seconds in a charming montage of Maurice's photographic clients, have a heft and a texture that no other film characters can equal.
Unforced, confident and completely involving, with exceptional acting aided by Dick Pope's unobtrusive camera work and John Gregory's telling editing, "Secrets & Lies" is filmmaking to savor.
Not just today but always.
Secrets & Lies, 1996. R, for language. A Ciby 2000 and Thin Man Films production, released by October Films. Director Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor John Gregory. Costumes Maria Price. Music Andrew Dickson. Production design Georgina Lowe. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes. Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia. Timothy Spall as Maurice. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense. Phyllis Logan as Monica. Claire Rushbrook as Roxanne.