France / UK, 1996
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 23 February 2005
Source Fox DVD
Beginning with his work in the London theater and his early dramas for the BBC series, Play for Today, Mike Leigh has consistently explored the personal and individual conditions of political and social issues. As in his most recent film, Vera Drake, which addresses the subject of abortion in post-war London, Leigh’s films approach a range of problems of class, gender, and family dysfunction from those characters that directly experience them. With an emphasis on performance (Leigh normally creates a script through a series of improvisations with his cast prior to filming), the films rarely seem driven by political agendas, but rather portray and comment upon social conditions as they affect the lives of individuals.
Leigh’s 1996 film Secrets & Lies addresses many of the same issues that have arisen throughout the director’s career (working class life, poverty, pregnancy, and strife between spouses and between parents and children) and some that are relatively new (race and adoption). But unlike so many similar films about social dysfunction (Magnolia leaps to mind), Secrets & Lies does not labor to shoe-horn trauma after trauma into the lives of its characters, but subtly weaves a narrative out of a set of credible, if often fraught, human relationships.
Similarly, though it features several brilliant and variedly rich characterizations, the film never becomes the familiar type of ensemble film, filled with scenery-chewing and scene-stealing. Rather the actors compliment each other in an astonishingly believable and organic manner, even as Andrew Dickson’s insistently mournful score provides the film with a tone of sustained, nearly operatic gravitas. Marianne Jean-Baptiste provides a beautifully restrained performance as Hortense, a young, middle-class black woman searching for her birth-mother, while Brenda Blethyn (giving the most honored and most criticized performance in the film) is Cynthia, the white factory-worker she finds – shrill, alcoholic, and deeply wounded. Timothy Spall, one of Leigh’s regular players, appears as Cynthia’s amiable brother Maurice, who wants so much to resolve the deep and varied divisions in his family’s life: his wife’s insecurity about her infertility; his sister’s deep-seated loneliness and disappointment; and his niece’s general bitterness and discontent, evidenced by what Cynthia colorfully describes as “a face like a slapped arse.”
Hortense’s arrival into this snakepit of recriminations and resentments (coinciding neatly and inevitably with a sunny family barbecue) induces the family to reveal the various secret pains and disappointments of their past, allowing each person to be more sympathetic and honest with each other and with themselves. But Leigh’s film stops short of catharsis, providing the potential for the characters’ rebuilding of their relationships without suggesting that such projects are simple or immediate. Nonetheless, Secrets & Lies maintains a humor, pathos, and humane optimism through its final frames, with a last line of dialogue that is at once ironic, hopeful, and matter-of-fact: “This is the life, ain’t it?”