Secrets and Lies Review

(3.5 STARS)

“Secrets and Lies. We all have pain. Why can’t we share our pain?” asks one character in Mike Leigh’s beloved 1996 drama “Secrets and Lies.” It’s a heartbreaking film about mistakes and cover-ups and one family’s search for peace. It’s the kind of film that lures you in without you realizing it, only to hit you with a hard bit of truth at the end, just like Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.” But whereas that one was mostly light, this one gets quite dark, and it’s not clear whether the characters will achieve the kind of catharsis we so wish for them. It makes for an incredibly powerful and worthwhile watch.

The action in “Secrets and Lies” revolves around Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a British factory worker with very little going for her. Her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), lives with her but doesn’t get along with her at all. Her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), largely ignores her, and his wife (Phyllis Logan) despises her.

Our other main character is Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Hortense was adopted, and when the film opens, she is burying her adoptive mother. She decides now is as good a time as any to track down her birth mother—Cynthia. Things are uneasy at first, but they eventually develop a bond, yet neither one knows how to break the news to the rest of the family.

“Secrets and Lies” is a very subtle film, and it’s very believable. The ultimate catharsis that comes is as much a relief for us as it is for the characters, and it’s very powerful. Most of all, the emotions in the film feel real. It’s a draining experience from beginning to end, but it’s a credit to Leigh that he makes us care enough about these people that we get caught up in their affairs.

The acting is simply brilliant. Two Oscar nominations came out of the film, but there should have been more. One of the nominated actresses is Brenda Blethyn. Cynthia is a pathetic individual, but Blethyn gives her the humanity necessary to make us care about her. Yet she’s still an extremely flawed person. The other nomination went to Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who plays the most (only?) level-headed member of this clan. This performance is much quieter than Blethyn’s, but no less powerful. More great work is provided by Timothy Spall, Claire Rushbrook, and Phyllis Logan. There’s honestly not a weak link in the ensemble—not even an average link.

Leigh peppers his film with intriguing pieces of these characters lives that make the context surrounding their problems all the more intriguing. The most obvious of these is race. First of all, Hortense is black, while her family is white. But on top of that, she is upper-class while her family is firmly lower-class. Yet, she is the one looking for their approval. It doesn’t mean a ton in the scheme of things, but it’s just a different type of relationship than we might have expected. Another example of this is the characters’ professions, specifically Hortense and Maurice. She is an optometrist, while he is a photographer. Both professions involve sight, seeing things in a different way. Again, these aren’t major plot points, but they are interesting tidbits of information that add a layer of intrigue to the film.

As with most Leigh productions, I was thoroughly satisfied, but emotionally drained. He’s a filmmaker unlike most, and I applaud him for his rare ability to craft an engaging film with such minimal story. “Secrets and Lies” was perhaps Leigh’s most lauded film, picking up the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1996, as well as Best Picture, Director, and Writing nominations at the Oscars that year (on top of the aforementioned acting nods). For me, it’s right up there in the Leigh filmography. And it makes me all the more excited to discover more of this unique filmmaker.

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