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.
I decided to pick up "Secrets and Lies" as it was recently listed along with a small group of "Import" titles on amazon.com. The site listed the company as "Pid", but it actually turned out to be a Chinese import from City Laser. This All-Region title certainly did not present very good image quality at all, unfortunately, although it was nice to see the film once again.
VIDEO: Lets just say that the movie deserves better, shall we? City Laser presents "Secrets and Lies" in approximately 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. While I'm happy that this release even offers the film in its original aspect ratio, the image quality leaves a lot to be desired. Appearing as if it was mastered from a weak source such as a laserdisc release, the picture appears largely soft and occasionally almost hazy.
While pixelation was not a continuous problem, it was occasionally visible in mild amounts. Further problems arose in the form of quite a few print flaws. Specks, marks and some noticable scratches were all apparent at a rate that was frequent throughout most of the movie. While the picture sometimes remained free of these blemishes, they could also get worse at moments. While colors didn't appear smeared, they did appear rather bland and weak; I know that "Secrets and Lies" is certainly not a colorful film, but the colors looked unnaturally subdued throughout on this edition. Last, but not least, if there wasn't already enough problems, the Chinese subtitles that are included are not optional.
While I didn't find this release unwatchable, the image quality still is definitely not very good and certainly flawed.
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. Unfortunately, what sounded like small dropouts happened at a couple of points throughout the film.
MENUS:: There aren't any.
EXTRAS:: There aren't any menus, let alone extras.
Final Thoughts: Certainly not the DVD that "Secrets and Lies" deserves, the image and audio quality are both problematic. While fans of the film might be able to overlook the blemishes, many will likely keep waiting for a Region 1 release that offers considerably better presentation quality. While "Secrets and Lies" would otherwise be "Highly Recommended", this DVD edition is lacking in nearly every aspect and gets the lower "Rent It" rating.