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Secrets & Lies - The Criterion Collection
When the phone rings, Evelyn (Brenda Blethyn) has arguably reached rock bottom. Her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), has just stormed out of their crumbling flat after another Evelyn accidentally incited another screaming match between them. Evelyn knows that Roxanne has gone to find her boyfriend, Paul (Lee Ross), someone Roxanne has not yet allowed her to meet. Her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), with whom she used to have a close relationship, now keeps her at arm's length because his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) despises Evelyn. Still shaking and sobbing, she answers the phone and hears the unfamiliar voice of a woman who identifies herself as Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Hortense was adopted as a baby and is now looking for her birth mother, a process newly legal in the UK. She is looking for Evelyn.
Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies is a tremendous movie, a patient and complicated film with incredible emotional clarity. As the title suggests, all of the characters are dealing with years of emotional trauma, stemming from long-buried pasts and regrets, and untangling all of it is a painful process. Yet, somehow Leigh (along with his immensely talented cast) manages to craft this complex web of interpersonal relationships and struggles without a villain, expressing a deep empathy for every one of the characters and their place in the story.
At the center of the movie are the complementary arcs of Evelyn and Hortense. Hortense has just lost her mother, and her father died years ago. When she was a child, they told her she was adopted, and now that both of them are gone, she can't help but think about how little she really knew about either of them, even though they had a good relationship. For Hortense, Evelyn represents a second chance at an adult relationship with a parental figure. Although Evelyn is wracked with guilt about having given her baby away, and instinctively understands that bringing Hortense into her already volatile relationship with her family would be reckless, her overwhelming loneliness makes the possibility of a relationship with Hortense impossible to resist. Although their first meeting is devastating for Evelyn (one watches Blethyn and begins to wonder if she might literally shatter, she cries so much), their newfound friendship almost immediately puts her on a more even keel.
Meanwhile, Maurice is also suffering. He loves his wife dearly, even though she herself is suffering (in ways that they understand, but Leigh waits to get into), and sometimes takes it out on him. He yearns to repair the relationship with his sister, not only for her sake, but also to see his niece more often. In a way, Maurice is like a large stone in the middle of a river: steady, but slowly being worn down by the current. He works as a professional photographer, both at weddings and in a small studio storefront, and we see his effortless charm and easygoing nature with people, qualities that are tragically stymied when he's with his own family. In one scene, an old acquaintance named Stuart (Ron Cook) shows up at the studio, and his whole vibe instantly raises the tension in the room, yet Maurice remains calm, knowing exactly how to navigate the situation. When Stuart leaves, and Maurice looks at his wife, there is a hint of regret in his eyes, as if he himself knows that he should be able to do this to fix his own family situation, but doesn't.
The movie's climax takes place at Roxanne's 21st birthday party, which, despite their differences, Maurice has managed to convince Evelyn, Roxanne, Paul, and his office assistant Jane (Elizabeth Berrington) to attend, with himself and Monica hosting. Evelyn, unable to contain her motherly love for Hortense, convinces her to attend as a friend from work. Fans of Leigh will no doubt be well-versed in his working methods: the story is outlined, and then he and the cast spend several months developing the characters, and essentially writing the actual script for the film through rehearsal, as a collaboration between himself and the actors. The final 40 minutes of Secrets & Lies is a testament to his methods, with all of the actors so firmly rooted in their characters and so in touch with the emotional beats of what happens. Every single member of the ensemble goes through their own arc in the sequence. It's easy to imagine watching it seven times focusing on each person and coming away with something entirely different -- the one throughline connecting all of them is that empathy that Leigh has for them. There are many movies about secrets and lies tearing people apart, destroying their lives and relationships, but here Leigh positions them as an obstacle that they might work together to overcome.
Criterion brings Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies to Blu-ray in one of their traditional packages. A still from the movie (possibly a composite) of Hortense and Cynthia drinking tea serves as the front cover, with the title, slightly imposed above them in a slightly fuzzy (but aesthetically pleasing) font. On the reverse of the sleeve, visible through the Scanavo Blu-ray case, there is nothing but a dark brown color, with little flecks visible throughout. There is also, of course, a fold-out leaflet featuring a new essay by Criterion's Ashley Clark.
The Video and Audio
For this Blu-ray, Criterion has received a new 2K-remastered transfer completed by distributor MK2, which was approved by Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope. The resulting 1.78:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is very pleasing, with natural-looking colors, an incredible amount of fine detail, and a lovely filmic appearance. As is the norm for Criterion, compression leaves a little to be desired with regards to the grain (although, to be fair, this is nearly invisible in motion), and during a single scene I noticed what appeared to be just a hint of black crush. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which has a great depth and richness to it despite the fact that the film is largely dialogue-driven. The track's evocation of the acoustics of cramped apartments, nearly-empty restaurants, and Maurice's photo studio often add to the intimacy of the scenes, helping to further place the viewer in the environments that Leigh has created. The track also handsomely presents Andrew Dickson's moody and sometimes ominous score, which sets the somewhat darkened mood of the film. English subtitles are also provided.
Criterion has assembled three interviews for this new edition of Secrets & Lies. Kicking things off are two interviews with Mike Leigh, the first conducted in 2020 by his friend, composer Gary Yershon, for the Criterion Collection (30:05). Yershon wastes no time, jumping right into discussion of the film. Their discussion covers the role of shame in the film as a theme or idea; professions as a key to character and a source of fascination of Leigh's; the equal importance of location and setting (and how that ties into class); correcting the record regarding a rumor about the first scene where Hortense and Cynthia meet (which includes a lengthy discussion about Leigh's filmmaking process); the scenes with Emma Amos, Ron Cook, and Michelle Austin and what place they have in the film (as well as the battle that ensued over them); calling in Lesley Manville to play a small but memorable role when the original version of the scene didn't work out; the cinematography and editing; and Leigh's view of the film's legacy. The second interview is a very lengthy audio piece with film critic Michel Ciment from 1996 (1:29:22). The wide-ranging and zig-zagging discussion touches on how Secrets & Lies is a deviation from Naked, the chronology of developing the story, another great story about his improvisational style and what the actors did or did not know in advance, deciding on how much of Hortense's world to show, the length and structure of the film (as well as the structure of Life is Sweet), the photography sequences, another discussion about the scene with Ron Cook, what Leigh finds interesting about characters like Cook's, outsider characters, the challenge of titling his movies, finding the balance between the practical and the reality, the way his filmmaking style creates moments in his movies, the idiosyncratic nature of people and working that into characters (and a person Leigh met that inspired one of them), developing the Cynthia character with Brenda Blethyn, his view of John Cassavetes and Elia Kazan, deciding where to place music in the film, the proper dynamic between story and character, the sense that viewers resist taking in the whole of a movie as opposed to parts, the proper way to name characters, costume design, and much more. Quality is a little rough, with a constant hiss that suggests a tape recording, but even when Ciment becomes a little fuzzy, Leigh is consistently clear. The final extra on the disc is another teleconference interview, in which Marianne Jean-Baptiste is interviewed by film critic Corrina Antrobus (27:43). They talk about Jean-Baptiste's daughter seeing the film, costume design, Leigh's boundaries for what he wanted the character to be, workshopping the scene with Michelle Austin, not fully grasping the film until she saw the finished picture, the way Secrets & Lies influenced her future work, what Hortense is doing now, the film as a time capsule of a certain period, the same rehearsal of the Holburn Station scene that Leigh discusses in his video interview, shooting the scene in the coffee shop, a great description of her headspace during the climactic birthday party scene (and a funny story about Lee Ross), something that the movie taught her about herself, the impact of the movie, the experience of being Oscar nominated, and enjoying the process. Of the interviews on the disc, this one isn't quite as meaty, but it's still great to hear from Jean-Baptiste and get her perspective on being a participant in Leigh's process.
An original theatrical trailer for Secrets & Lies is also included.
Secrets & Lies is an outstanding drama, one that has the acclaim but perhaps not as high a profile in the United States 25 years after its release that it deserves. This new Criterion edition should help to rectify that, with a very good transfer and a small but hefty selection of extras. While the absence of two out of three main cast members among the extras feels like a bit of a shortcoming, the disc is highly recommended.
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