After the death of her adoptive mother, Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides it is finally time to track down her birth mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). A relatively successful and well-adjusted optometrist in her late 20's, Hortense is unprepared for what she will find when the two finally meet, and her presence will have greater impact than the two could possibly foresee. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, a man known for loosely outlining a script and letting his actors and characters fill in the blanks, Secrets & Lies is a powerful film about the family dynamic and how destructive it can be when we keep secrets from those we love.
Cynthia Purley is an unmarried lower-class factory worker who has raised her daughter Roxanne alone without any sign of the father, and as Roxanne's 21st birthday approaches, the two still live together under the same roof in a rundown mess of a home. A chain-smoking nervous wreck, Cynthia loves her daughter very much, but the two have never gotten along, and if Roxanne had the means to move out, she almost certainly would. Stopping by from time to time (but with far less frequency in recent years) to check on his sister and spoil his niece is Cynthia's brother Maurice. Maurice owns a small photography business, and while his lifestyle is little more than comfortable middle class, it feels like luxury from the perspective of Cynthia and Roxanne. Along with Maurice's wife Monica, a nice woman who becomes unbearable to be around once a month, these four people comprise the dysfunctional and emotionally distant family that Hortense will ultimately find at the end of her search.
While the "plot" of Secrets & Lies is that of an adult woman seeking out the birth mother who gave her up for adoption nearly 30 years earlier, this work is predominantly about characters and the way they interact. The members of the Purley family love one another, but they have a terrible time interacting together. Cynthia resents Monica for spoiling Roxanne, feeling like she's trying to turn her daughter and brother against her. Monica feels Maurice is too forgiving of his sister's flaws. Maurice feels like he's just going through the motions in his life and is beginning to wonder if his wife still loves him. And Roxanne is just plain sour about nearly everything. For one reason or another, these are unhappy people, and each of them is carrying a secret that makes their interactions all the more difficult.
What's interesting about this film is that the secrets they keep from one another aren't malicious at all. None of them is having an affair or leading a secret life or running from the law or anything of that nature. The secrets they keep are motivated more out of personal pain and a difficultly opening themselves up and sharing that pain with others, including the ones they love. However, in their efforts to emotionally protect themselves and one another, they have ultimately done more harm than good, as this pain has festered over the years and turned into bitterness, and at the point where the audience joins the story, this family is barely functioning.
Enter Hortense, the disarmingly sweet and likeable daughter Cynthia never expected to meet. After getting over the initial shock, Cynthia warms up to the idea of meeting this woman, and the two of them begin to build a very touching relationship with one another as Cynthia begins to find some light in her life again. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes (with Blethyn winning the Globe) for their respective performances, and it is well deserved. Blethyn completely immerses herself into the character of Cynthia, who is frequently nervous and distraught and struggles to interact with pretty much anyone, and yet she creates a heart-breakingly likeable quality that makes the audience really want to root for her. In contrast, Jean-Baptiste gives a very subtle performance, trying desperately to politely roll with whatever she encounters on this journey and yet unable to completely hide the emotions that are building inside of her and the questions she does not want to ask but must have answered. In a mesmerizing showcase of character understanding, the two first meet one another in a coffee shop, and director Mike Leigh trustingly sets the camera on one side of the table and just watches for over 8 minutes of uncut emotion and dialogue. The result is a powerful scene that is just dripping with realism of character and emotion, and the viewer almost forgets that he's watching actors and performances and almost feels as if he's sitting in that room with two real people whose lives have been shaken by these unique circumstances.
Another interesting technique Leigh uses in this film is frequently cutting to various photography shoots in Maurice's studio. Maurice is a subdued man who quietly and effectively goes about his business of shooting photographs, but the customers who enlist his services represent a range of characters. Within these short sequences, we get a glimpse into the lives of these customers and what Maurice sees every day, and we are often caught wondering whether to laugh or cry. While some of these moments are played strictly for comedy, many of them echo the similar relationship problems that the Purleys have faced all their lives (not to mention those of us watching the film), and it is a very effective device.
While there is much to admire in this film, its greatest success is with its characters. The performances of everyone involved are fantastic, and when the film reaches its ultimate conclusion, it is both powerful and moving. Leigh's ability to capture the lives of these characters is also impressive, and the long scenes of unbroken action elevate the level of realism to even greater heights. One of the best sequences in the film comes at a family barbeque where once again Leigh just lets the camera run for over 5 minutes while every major character in the film cooks, eats, and interacts, tip-toeing through the minefield that is their relationships, trying not to say the wrong thing that will uncover some secret or set off a chain reaction of anger and resentment that will ruin an otherwise pleasant afternoon. To accomplish scenes like this requires a special synergy of actor and character and a rarely seen level of trust from everyone involved. The final result of these efforts is a moving and realistic film that takes us into the lives of these characters and really helps us understand the motivations behind their actions and how the secrets they have kept from one another have almost destroyed their family.
Secrets & Lies is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen format with anamorphic enhancement. The print is somewhat grainy and the colors are a bit faded, but that's more a part of the style than a flaw with the release. In cases of extreme color contrast, there is some significant edge enhancement, but this only pops up every once in a while and is not particularly distracting. Compared with the original import release of this film, overall it's a marked improvement.
The only available audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Since this film is almost exclusively dialogue, there is no need for anything more. Some of the dialogue comes through a bit soft, and I had to crank up the volume a few times to hear certain scenes clearly, but overall the audio is adequate for its purpose, and the beautiful solo pieces of flugelhorn and various stringed instruments that underscore many of the scenes are clear and effective.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
The only additional "feature" on this disc is the original theatrical trailer. Also included are trailers for three Fox films (Author! Author!, Blood & Wine, and Class Action), presumably soon to be released on DVD.
When I first saw Secrets & Lies in 1996, I believed it to be the best film I had seen all year. Watching it again nearly a decade later and with some detached perspective, I find no reason to change that opinion. Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, this is a beautifully composed and powerful film about ordinary people with ordinary problems. The performances are spectacular, and Leigh's trust in his actors and their characters elevates the film to even higher levels. What we find in their lives is not that different from what we find in our own, and seeing their efforts to cope with these issues is a moving experience. While there are no features on this disc, the MSRP is reasonably set under $10.00 at the time of this review, and I Highly Recommend this wonderful film.