Secrets & Lies
1996, NR, 142 min. Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 18, 1996
The international reputation of British director Mike Leigh has grown phenomenally in recent years with the popularity of 1988's High Hopes and 1990's Life Is Sweet, the drab but daffy family dramas (or were they realistic but offbeat social comedies?). With 1992's startling Naked, Leigh's work took on a much darker tone as he followed the perambulations of a disturbingly mesmerizing sociopath played by David Thewlis. Despite its off-putting nature, Naked received much critical praise and many ardent fans. Now, with Secrets & Lies, which won the Palme d'Or at May's Cannes Film Festival, Leigh seems poised to break out of the arthouse ghetto. Thus, it's a bit bothersome that, in context, Secrets & Lies is the slightest and least successful of all these recent films, though, indeed, the one that presents the sunniest disposition. As the movie begins, we're introduced to several sets of characters whom we're allowed to observe and become familiar with before beginning to see how all their lives will intersect. Maurice (Spall) is a portrait photographer who spends his day coaxing flattering smiles out of his pedestrian subjects. Maurice is married to Monica (Logan) whose passion is poured into the flawless interior decoration of their home. Their dwelling sharply contrasts with that of Maurice's sister Cynthia (Blethyn), who lives in a decaying old house with her sullen daughter Roxanne (Rushbrook). Cynthia is a lonely, needy, and unhappy woman who works in a box factory; Roxanne is a street sweeper. Across town, Hortense (Jean-Baptiste) is a successful optometrist who decides to find her birth mother following the death of her adopted parents. Yet once she finds her birth certificate, Hortense is sure that a mistake has been made. The certificate says that her mother is white. Hortense is black. Her mother, of course, turns out to be Cynthia, who greets the news with even greater shock. The whole situation culminates during the climactic family barbecue sequence at which numerous secrets and lies, in addition to the whopper shrouding Hortense's birth, come spilling forth. Now, if Leigh were still operating in the devastating interpersonal mode of Naked, this Secrets & Lies barbecue would be a take-no-prisoners kind of affair. But in this new playing field, quite the opposite is true. In Secrets & Lies sticky issues cause fleeting emotional blips rather than debilitating disruptions. Cynthia, whose entire life is in hysterical overdrive (Brenda Blethyn's caterwauling performance also earned her the best actress award at Cannes), may be the only exception to this pattern, yet there's even something too simple about her relatively quick acceptance of her new daughter. Hortense, on the other hand, seems too underdeveloped a character for one in such a narratively pivotal position. Secrets & Lies also inexplicably introduces a completely tangential and unnecessary subplot concerning the photographer who sold his shop to Maurice. And the long-awaited barbecue climax seems somewhat wanting and insufficient after all the expectations that have been built up. Secrets & Lies, despite my dwelling on its problems, is a really solid and enjoyable movie. It's just not what I would call “best of the fest.”