(movie review written in 2002)
One of the best films of 1996, "Secrets and Lies" is one of British director Mike Leigh's very best works, a film that remains grounded in reality, but unmistakably powerful at times and consistently acted at the highest possible level by Leigh's marvelous cast. The film is one of the strongest recent example of a great character-driven work; it gives us characters that are human, endearing and wonderfully three-dimensional and as a result, we want to follow them throughout their journey. Director Leigh's impressive improvisational way of working has seemingly kept the film unpredictable and fresh, as well.
The film starts off with a young black woman named Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) at the funeral of her mother, then attempting to search out her birth mother at the local offices. To her shock, she finds out that her birthmother is white and named Cynthia(Brenda Blethyn), who's currently living with an irritable young daughter of her own, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook).
Originally, Cynthia denies the possibility that Hortense could be her daughter, then begins to come to the realization that the facts are true. The two start off not taking a particular liking to one another, but as time passes on, they slowly get to know one another and become at least better friends. Yet, Cynthia already has further family problems that she has to handle, including the fact that she hasn't seen her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), whose absence from her she blames on his husband Monica. Maurice does stop by for a visit early on, inviting Cynthia and daughter to a family gathering where the film's wrap-up will take place and Hortense will be introduced into the family.
"Secrets and Lies" is one of the best recent examples of a group of actors who completely understand the characters they're playing and become them fully. Blethyn could have easily gone over-the-top, but she manages to make an unsympathetic character engaging by her impressive display of emotions and at least some moments of subtler display. Baptiste is wonderful, as well, and works splendidly with Blethyn. While "Secrets and Lies" is certainly dramatic, there are enough slightly warmer or happy moments sprinkled throughout to not only keep the film from being too heavy, but to keep us rooting for the characters to pick themselves up and dust themselves off.
We consistently hear about big-budget projects who fail, partly because they start off with no screenplay. But, Leigh is able to come together with his casts time and time again and come up with intricately detailed characters and stories whose emotions and plot are both carefully crafted and seem natural and realistic at the same time.
VIDEO: Previously only available in the United States via a rather poor all-region import no longer available on Amazon.com, Fox's new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is a considerable improvement over that release. The picture does show some noticable grain at times, but, as far as I can remember, this is how the film was intended to appear. Sharpness and detail are generally solid - some low-light/darker scenes appear a tad soft, but there are other moments where I was very pleased with the level of definition present in the image.
Again, the picture did show some mild grain, but that was really about it when it came to concerns. Some slight edge enhancement made a couple of brief appearances and a speck or two was spotted on the print used, but otherwise, the picture looked crisp and clean. The film's color palette is subdued, but appeared accurately portrayed here.
SOUND: This disc presents the film in Dolby 2.0 audio. Almost completely dialogue-driven, the only other part of note is Anthony Dickson's wonderfully moody and melancholy score, which sounded crisp and generally decent. Dialogue also came through clearly, as well.
EXTRAS: The film's theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for "Author! Author!", "Blood & Wine" and "Class Action".
Final Thoughts: "Secrets and Lies" is a powerful drama from director Mike Leigh, boasting a remarkable cast. Audio/video quality is very fine, and the lack of extras can be excused, given the dirt cheap $9.99 retail price. A definite recommendation, especially with the very reasonable price.