Secrets and Lies (United Kingdom/France, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

By wedding comedy with tragedy in intricate, realistic unions, Mike Leigh has become one of the foremost film making voices for the British working class. Yet, even though his movies bring a certain social viewpoint to the screen, this in no way limits the universality of Leigh's themes. Secrets and Lies, 1996's Palme D'Or winner at Cannes, represents the director at his best -- unsentimental yet powerful, funny and poignant, and, in the end, undeniably satisfying.

The film will resonate with anyone who has ever hidden a secret or told a lie (that should cover everyone). This isn't overblown melodrama; rather, it's the kind of starkly believable tale that could happen to anyone. Nothing in Secrets and Lies demands even a momentary suspension of disbelief. In fact, the film works best for those who approach it as a reflection of life. We can all relate to the issues being raised -- simple truths like adoption, infertility, and mother/daughter friction.

Secrets and Lies opens with a funeral, then quickly switches to a wedding. During the former ceremony, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a 27-year old black optometrist, is burying her mother. In the next scene, we meet Maurice (Timothy Spall), a 38-year old white photographer who's taking pictures of a nervous bride. It takes nearly the entire movie before these two characters come face-to-face, but that happens during that meeting represents the climax of Leigh's beautifully-realized film. Hortense and Maurice are crucial to unraveling the entire sequence of secrets and lies.

Hortense was adopted. She has known this since she was seven years old, but it's not until both of her parents are dead that she feels compelled to seek out her birth mother. Despite being warned by a social worker to anticipate unpleasantness or disappointment, Hortense is shocked to learn that her mother is white. Her name is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), and she's a 42-year old neurotic living in a dark, gloomy rowhouse with her 21-year old daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Cynthia is disliked by just about everyone who knows her, except perhaps her brother, Maurice. Even Maurice's wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), hates the idea of spending a day in Cynthia's company.

Secrets and Lies chronicles Hortense's initial approach to Cynthia, their first meeting, and the development of a tentative bond. Each offers something unique to the other: Cynthia has lost her "real" daughter's love and respect, and is desperate to find a surrogate -- who better than the grown-up child she once gave away? Hortense, on the other hand, feels rootless now that the two people who brought her up are dead, and, while she doesn't look to Cynthia for parenting, she is curious about, and, ultimately, sympathetic with the disappointments that have defined her biological mother's life. There are no recriminations, at least not on Hortense's part. Any guilt that Cynthia feels is entirely of her own creation.

Leigh develops the story slowly, introducing us to each character, and, through actions and dialogue, allowing us to learn about their lives. We are not force-fed facts and details. There are no flashbacks nor is there a voiceover narration. The film's almost-documentary quality is belied only by the care and thought put into each camera shot. From beginning to end, Secrets and Lies is exceptionally well thought-out.

Emotional impact is crucial to the movie's success. Leigh employs a number of single-camera, unedited shots to facilitate dramatic development by letting the depth of emotions play out on screen. (How many movies cut away when things get too heavy?) One such sequence is the first meeting between Hortense and Cynthia. It's an incredible scene, with these two sitting side-by-side in a restaurant booth, trying to reconcile the past with the present, and groping for words to express what they're feeling. This is all accomplished in one shot, with no cuts or edits. A similar approach is used for their third meeting, and during a cookout near the end.

Brenda Blethyn won the Cannes Best Actress award for her daring, emotionally naked portrayal of Cynthia, and, while she's excellent, it's hard to single out any individual in this ensemble cast. These actors aren't just good, they're superlative. Leigh has a history of getting the most out of his performers (look at David Thewlis in Naked), and, if Secrets and Lies is anything to judge by, it's a well-deserved reputation. This is the kind of film that is made or broken by actors, and there's not a false note to be found in any of the performances.

With Secrets and Lies, Leigh has surpassed his considerable achievements in Life is Sweet and Naked. This film exhibits the kind of breathtaking power that can be unearthed in a simple story. There's no sensationalism -- Leigh has ignored stereotypes in carefully developing the situation (wealthy black professional; underprivileged, uneducated whites) to dispel racial tension. This allows the dysfunctional family dynamics to be the sole focus. Maurice sums up Leigh's most pressing theme when he laments, "Secrets and lies...We're all in pain! Why can't we share our pain?" What the director has accomplished with this picture is to fashion an amazingly-textured story that grips us with unexpected force on the first viewing, and is sure to reveal a new aspect each time we come back. Without a doubt, Secrets and Lies is worth more than one trip to the theater.

Secrets and Lies (United Kingdom/France, 1996)

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Music: Andrew Dickson
U.S. Distributor: October Films
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1