Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/11/07 w/ Additional Edits.
Following 1993's controversial film Naked, Mike Leigh has created international attention for his film that explored a man's journey into London as he talks about philosophy while doing horrible things to the women around him. Despite the acclaim and international attention it brought, Leigh also courted criticism for his film. Three years later, Leigh decided to change the tone of his previous film for something more dysfunctional with his 1996 film that some considered to be one of his best. A family drama about a black woman who searches for her birth mother who is shocked to find out that she's white and very dysfunctional. The film is entitled Secrets & Lies.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Secrets & Lies is a drama about a family that is very dysfunctional with its mother often very despondent and sad by the drama that surrounds her. Meanwhile, she is unaware that she has another daughter who is black yet very successful and grounded. When her daughter finally traces her real parentage and finds her mother, the reaction surrounding her mother's family becomes a shock. Starring Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth Berrington, and Leigh regulars Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall. Secrets & Lies is a harrowing yet powerful masterpiece from Mike Leigh.
It's a typical day at work for Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall) who works as a photographer. Shooting weddings and other styles including modeling shots, Maurice is doing fine in his job yet he's feeling unhappy. His marriage to Monica (Phyllis Logan) is strained as she is often frustrated and nagging over things. When their niece Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) is about to turn 21 soon, the two decide to have a family get together at their house. Though Maurice hasn't spoken to Roxanne or his sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) in more than two years, he's more than welcome to the idea. Life for Cynthia however, isn't going well as she and Roxanne are not getting along with Roxanne now being angry over things while refusing to have her mother meet her new boyfriend Paul (Leo Ross). Roxanne’s lashing out and the loneliness she's suffering has caused a lot of guilt for Cynthia.
Meanwhile in another side of London, Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is mourning the death of her adoptive mother. Though she lives a great live as an optometrist, Hortense knows the fact that she is adopted since her adopted parents told her as a child. After talking to a social worker (Lesley Manville), she learns on who her real mother is. Then while reading the files, she learns that Cynthia Rose Purley is white. Shocked and baffled, Hortense ponders on whether or not she should try to find out more about Cynthia. After filing through papers and everything, she learns that Cynthia is alive and well.
While taking a break for work, Maurice pays an unexpected visit to Cynthia's home. Aware of her loneliness and everything, he invites to the barbeque he's having in honor of Roxanne's birthday. He expects Roxanne and whoever she’s dating to come. After the very emotional meeting with Cynthia, Maurice ponders his own family life and how Cynthia tried the best she could to cope with their mother’s death early in their life. When Cynthia asks Roxanne about Maurice's barbeque, Roxanne refuses to come as Cynthia pleads with her to be more open. Instead, Roxanne says insulting things leaving Cynthia despondent. The timing couldn't have been worse when Cynthia suddenly receives a phone call from Hortense of all people in which, Cynthia receives the shock of her life.
After reluctantly agreeing to meet, the two wait out at a train station where they finally meet. Shocked over when the baby was born and conceived, Cynthia is full of grief over what she's done to Hortense. Learning that Hortense is doing fine and everything, the meeting becomes extremely emotional for Cynthia. Yet, it's become something rewarding considering that her relationship with Roxanne is very rocky. Cynthia calls Hortense as the two begin to meet more and more as they now bond like mother and daughter.
In a day where Maurice photographs a scarred woman (Emma Amos), Monica visits as she and Maurice's assistant named Jane (Elizabeth Berrington) discuss plans for the barbeque. The day gets stranger when a man named Stuart Christian (Ron Cook), who was once the owner of the photo studio that Maurice had bought. Returning from Australia, the despondent Christian sees what Maurice has done but isn't impressed with how he makes a living as the meeting turns bitter.
After deciding to go to her birthday party at her uncle, Roxanne brings over Paul while Cynthia calls Maurice to confirm that she's bringing a friend. The party goes smoothly at first with no incident, even as Cynthia brings Hortense to the party where things go well without incident. Though Hortense had to see how Roxanne acts towards her mother. When Cynthia becomes emotional, the secrets and lies begin to come out as Hortense finds herself in the middle of a family drama.
Considering that the film is a family drama, Mike Leigh chooses to not over-emphasize the drama or situations that would build to up emotional blow-ups in the end. Instead, his improvisational approach to his writing and direction works in building a realism of a dysfunctional family who are so disconnected that they're brought together by someone who doesn't fit in at first. Since many of the characters aren't played as caricatures, there's depth to all of the characters in the film. Leigh's improvisational style in which the actors are given the freedom to improvise and create their own lines feel universal to an audience who can understand family dysfunction.
Leigh's observant yet mesmerizing direction is at its best when he decides to capture a moment of conversation and drama. Two scenes are shown with an unbroken take in which, the actors seem very comfortable and in character where they engage in conversation of sorts. The conversations and subject matter they talk about is very real. Though there's not much humor, whenever it pops up, it's funny and natural like in any conversation.
While some might complain about the film's pacing, even at a running time of 142-minutes. It's only deliberate to build the momentum of the family's unhappiness and how much pain they're building up. Then there's Hortense, who just went through her own pain about her adopted mother's death is trying to remain strong throughout the whole thing. When she gets to know her real mother, she sees behind all of this pain she's suffering is that Cynthia is a wonderful woman despite her flaws.
Family is really the theme of the film. Leigh shows that no matter how messed up people are, when they're together. There's always someone to talk to, even in a moment of desperation or sadness. While the character of Roxanne may be described as selfish and uncaring, it's because she's got a lot of anger towards her mother about who she is and what she's hiding.
There's also Maurice, who is really the one person who, like Hortense, is very quiet about trying to handle things and try to be strong about every situation. When he's forced to see the family drama that's happening near the end, he is the one trying to settle everything where he's kind of like the glue in family. It's in Leigh's wonderful direction and approach to storytelling that makes the film a compelling yet heartbreaking family drama.
Leigh's longtime cinematographer Dick Pope brings a wonderful look to the film that looks very colorful and natural to the film's exterior shots of London as well as the interiors whether it's the bluish colors that surrounds the home of Maurice, the dark intimacy of Cynthia's home or the spacious, white look of Hortense's home. Production designer Alison Chitty helps the film's look to show the contrast whether it's the clean look of Hortense and Maurice or the decayed home and claustrophobia of Cynthia's home.
Editor Jon Gregory does excellent work with the film's editing to capture the emotion of the family drama that goes on while not cutting some of the film's dramatic conversations. Sound recordist George Richards does great work in capturing the film's sounds, notably London in all of its different sections. Music composer Andrew Dickson brings a wonderfully melancholic, yet enchanting score led by a trumpet to convey the drama and sadness surrounding each character.
The film's cast is wonderfully assembled that features Cameos from other Mike Leigh players like Peter Wight, Lucy Sheen, Ruth Sheen, Phillip Davis, and Leigh's then-wife Alison Steadman. Lesley Manville is excellent in her brief role as a sympathetic social worker who prepares Hortense for what was to come. Elizabeth Berrington is also good as Maurice's assistant Jane who is invited to the party as she tries to see how Maurice is trying to stabilize situations. Ron Cook is wonderful as a frustrated owner who is down on his luck and lashing out at Maurice claiming he doesn't know a thing about art. Leo Ross is good as Roxanne's boyfriend Paul who tries to understand her situations while being interested in meeting Cynthia. Other small roles that included Emma Amos as a scarred model and Michele Austin as Hortense's friend Dionne are good in the brief scenes they're in.
Claire Rushbrook is excellent as the angry, selfish Roxanne who despises her mother while trying to hold down a job cleaning the streets and pondering on why she is angry all the time. Phyllis Logan is also great as Monica, a housewife who is feeling frustrated with her own lifestyle as well as her own resentments towards Cynthia over stability. Timothy Spall gives probably one of his best performances as Maurice, a man who is trying to understand his own unhappiness surrounding the women in his life as he tries to comfort everyone in whatever drama they're in. Spall is in rare form as throughout almost the entire film, is very restrained and subtle as he tries to be a father of sorts to everyone including his older sister Cynthia.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is great as Hortense, a woman in mourning who is trying to find out about her roots. When she meets Cynthia, Jean-Baptiste shows remarkable strength in a woman, who is successful and grounded, who becomes an unlikely friend for Cynthia. The film's best performance easily goes to Brenda Blethyn as the fragile, neurotic Cynthia. Blethyn gives a performance that is very raw as a woman who has lost a lot of her looks and confidence and is often alienated by everyone. When Hortense comes into her life, Blethyn shows more life and joy to her performance that is often mixed in with light-hearted humor and drama. It's an amazing performance from the actress who is often beloved by filmgoers.
When it premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, the film was a surprise hit in which it won Leigh the prestigious Palme D'or while Brenda Blethyn also received the Best Actress prize. The film would also give Blethyn a Golden Globe win for Best Actress while the film itself received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Screenplay to Leigh, Best Actress to Blethyn, and Best Supporting Actress to Marianne Jean-Baptiste. At the British Academy Awards, the film walked with three prizes including Best British Film, Best Screenplay, and another Best Actress prize to Brenda Blethyn.
The film is often considered Leigh's masterpiece as he continues to create amazing films in his unique style. Fans of Leigh work will no doubt consider this his greatest triumph although others might prefer his previous film, the very dark existential drama Naked. In the end, Secrets & Lies is a brilliant, harrowing family drama from Mike Leigh and company.
Mike Leigh Films: (Bleak Moments) - (Hard Labour) - (The Permissive Society) - (Knock for Knock) - (Nuts in May) - (Abigail's Party) - (Kiss of Death) - (Who's Who) - (Grown-Ups) - (Home Sweet Home) - (Meantime) - (Four Days in July) - (High Hopes) - Life is Sweet - Naked - Career Girls - Topsy-Turvy - All or Nothing - Vera Drake - Happy-Go-Lucky - Another Year
(C) thevoid99 2011