On the surface, Secrets and Lies tells the story of a young woman, Hortence (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) seeking out her biological mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). As we look deeper into the film, we see how unhappy and alone each member of Cynthia’s family is. Her crass, foul-mouthed daughter, Roxanne (Clair Rushbrook), works as a sidewalk sweep and always seems miserable. Cynthia’s house reflects her and Roxanne’s low working class status. Her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), is a photographer and provides well for his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), but he doesn’t keep in good contact with Cynthia. It’s only after Hortence and Cynthia start a friendly relationship, (perhaps the most open, honestly positive relationship Cynthia has ever had) that tensions rise and secrets are revealed.
British director Mike Leigh is one of the most anti-Hollywood filmmakers I’ve ever heard of. He didn’t begin the film with a written script. He didn’t let Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste meet before filming. In fact, most of the film’s dialogue is improvised. It’s so well done that Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste were nominated for acting Oscars. This amazingly dramatic film gels solidly into an engaging story. These unorthodox methods is what gives the whole film has an odd and naturally real feel about it.
In many scenes in the film, it feels like we’re eavesdropping. We hear the conversation, see the characters, yet the topic stays between just the two for a while. They are in the know, but the fact that the topic has not been blatantly revealed makes us listen more intently and attempt to read between the lines. The scene where Hortence is initially seeking information about her birth mother kept me searching for clues the most. I found myself trying to draw conclusions from the posters on the walls and when the topic was finally dropped, I was released from my search, very much relieved.
What we are shown of Maurice’s photography profession is fascinating. Multiple times, we are shown his clients just before the shot. A newly engaged couple fights, a little boy picks his nose, business men impatiently check their watches, a bride cries. Maurice’s job is to capture the moments that look like everything about these people is perfect. What’s amazing is that his wife Monica is trying to make her life picture perfect in real time. She shows off their nice house, with new carpets and a new car just trying to keep up appearances, while she and Maurice hide a devastating secret.
While I was captivated and stirred by this film, many viewers may not be. It’s very quiet film and the most telling moments are not within the conversations, but within the moments of deafening silence. There’s also the topic of race, I purposely waited until now to tell you that Hortence is black while the rest of Cynthia’s family is white. I believe Leigh handles that subject perfectly, but I feel that many viewers will want to read too much into it. If you want to tackle a very dramatic, unorthodox, quiet British film, I completely recommend Secrets and Lies.
“There, I said it, so where’s the bolt of lightning?”
This is a film which grew on me with additional viewings. My initial response was “OK, so what?” But it’s a film that makes you think and gets you involved with the characters before you realize it. The two female performances were quietly outstanding. I really think that this is Mike Leigh’s best work.