Secrets & Lies (1996)


There are very few words that can describe how much I adore Mike Leigh. Not only do I consider him one of the greatest filmmakers working today, I consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one that matches the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. The only other filmmaker that is able to work so effectively with actors was Billy Wilder, and that is very prestigious company for Leigh to be in. However, it is absolutely true, and Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece Naked is an absolute masterpiece (in my humble but confident opinion, it is the greatest film ever made), and all of his other films that I have seen have been absolutely brilliant. However, Secrets & Lies is a film that is utterly extraordinary in its approach to its delicate and very controversial subject matter, but without being preachy or overly involved with the politics of the story, Leigh allows for the story to flow naturally, and while it may not be on the same level as Naked, it is certainly one of Leigh’s best films and a great drama that may be one of the best films of the 1990s.

As I mentioned above, no one can work with actors quite like Mike Leigh. His characters are always so fully-formed and three-dimensional, and they seem like real humans rather than characters in a film. Much of this is helped by Leigh’s fantastic way of writing his films – weeks of intense rehearsal, where the cast members interact with each other and take part in free-form improvisation sessions, where they are allowed to develop the characters on their own and become connected with the skeleton of a story that Leigh has put forward. If the stories of the production of Secrets & Lies are true (which they seem to be – I see very few reasons for anyone to outright lie about it), then Leigh really used the essence of this film’s theme in this process, meeting with each castmember individually and giving them the essence of their characters, and allowing each one to hold secrets and lies that are only revealed to the rest of the cast throughout the making of the film. Many filmmakers attempt interesting and risky forms of character development like this, but strangely, under Mike Leigh, it never feels gimmicky or bizarre, and is quite possibly the opposite – it feels natural and true, which is a word we can use to describe nearly all of Mike Leigh’s films.

With a Mike Leigh film, as with any other character-driven drama, the film lives or dies with the performances. Of course, Naked was so brilliant because of David Thewlis’ fascinating and honest tour-de-force performance as Johnny. He certainly gives the male performance of the 1990s, and it can be said that Brenda Blethyn might possibly give the female version – never before have I been amazed with an actress doing so little so brilliantly. It is a delicate role – the character is an emotional wreck, and it could’ve tipped to either side, where she was portrayed as being far too campy and over-the-top, or alternatively as someone just so bleak in their outlook, it becomes boring to watch them. Blethyn finds the perfect balance to bring her character of Cynthia Rose Purley the correct amount of humanity, honesty and endearing qualities, and allowing the audience to actually connect with her, feeling every emotion she feels. Blethyn is absolutely brilliant in the role, and the more I think about it, the more her performance grows on me, and he ability to wonderfully transition from one extreme emotion to another without the calculated bag of tricks that many other actresses utilize shows how perfectly she was able to encapsulate her character the story as a whole. It would have been very easy for Cynthia to be a caricature – those on the brink of poverty or insanity are usually prone to caricature in films, and while the character is lower-class and on the verge of a nervous breakdown throughout the film, it never feels like Leigh or Blethyn are trying to imitate or exploit the real-life versions of this character that do exist. They treat the character of Cynthia with such sensitivity, and she gives a performance that doesn’t aim to mock those who might find themselves in the same situation, but rather represent them as the sadly real and unfortunately plighted people that exist in society. It is a truly remarkable performance.

However, what sets Secrets & Lies apart from Naked (I apologize profusely for the constant comparisons – but it isn’t without merit – both are absolutely amazing films by an outstanding director that touch upon common issues), is that Naked began and ended with David Thewlis’ amazing performance, and the supporting cast, while still very good, are not essential to the film. Secrets & Lies is a far more ensemble-centered film, and this could be the best cast Leigh has ever assembled for one of his films. Coming eerily close to matching Blethyn in the best performance of this film is Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is the reason for this film actually taking place, or rather the driving force behind it. She plays Cynthia’s adult daughter Hortense who was put up for adoption when she was born, and who seeks out her birth mother, and is shocked to discover that her birth mother is white, while she is black. The reason for this is never explained (although some very subtle clues indicate that Cynthia was raped when she was much younger, and that Hortense is the result of that horrific event), and what makes Leigh such a brilliant director is his belief that he doesn’t need to explain the background to why some events happen – as in real life, some parts of our lives are left without explanation altogether, and we simply just accept that we won’t ever have answers to some of our biggest questions – and while another director would make the focus of this film about how a white, middle-aged woman comes to terms with the fact that her daughter is a young black woman, Leigh avoids that mostly, and what is most remarkable (and something strangely progressive, even for the 1990s), is that the plot around the different races of the mother and daughter does not really extend much further than their initial meeting, where they eventually come to terms with the fact that it is true. This film does deal with mother-daughter relations, but far more than simply the different skin colours, and leans more towards exploring the different social status between the characters. Jean-Baptiste is absolutely stunning in this role, and it baffles me that she didn’t get equally high-profile work after this, because she was absolutely luminous and transcendent as Hortense, and she serves as a great contrast to Blethyn’s performance, because while she doesn’t have loud, showy moments quite like Cynthia, Hortense doesn’t possess any less of the emotional range than her mother, and Jean-Baptiste infuses the character with a quiet rage and intense curiosity, and a strange optimism that is truly fascinating to watch. Her performance is wonderfully fascinating and is wonderfully intense.

There are very few actors who work so hard and for nearly nothing quite like Timothy Spall. He did have a magnificent year last year with his leading performance as the iconic J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (it comes as hardly a surprise when you consider who directed that film), but over his long and storied career, Spall has had to deal with supporting other, more famous actors, or having memorable cameos in some interesting films. Watching his performance here in Secrets & Lies, it is difficult to understand why his career isn’t quite like his contemporaries, and why he isn’t in demand more. It can’t be denied that he certainly has had his fair share of big films, but he was never really front and centre in any of them, bar the several times he has worked with Mike Leigh. His performance as Maurice, Cynthia’s more successful younger brother, he brings an interesting perspective to this film. Eternally likable and wonderfully endearing, his character does absolutely nothing wrong – he does not go out seeking trouble (which Hortense admittedly does, defying a request from a social worker to not seek out her birth mother), nor does he cause rifts in his family by keeping secrets like his sister does, and yet he undergoes some of the most tragic moments of this film, as a consequence not of his own actions, but of the actions of (as he says), “the three people I love the most” – the others being his wife played by Phyllis Logan (who despises her sister-in-law and enjoys seeing her fail) and his niece, played by Claire Rushbrook (who leads a life free of any ambition or responsibility). Spall is a magnificent actor, and Secrets & Lies is just another reason why he is quite possibly the most underrated actor working today. He is just a force of nature, and has shown his ability to handle absolutely any cinematic challenges that get thrown at him. Stellar work in Secrets & Lies by a magnificent actor.

Secrets & Lies is a beautiful film. Emotional, sad and sometimes even very funny, it has a rare streak of humanity and realism that flows through it, and proves that Mike Leigh is an absolute visionary. I always say it, and I will gladly say it again – Mike Leigh is the best filmmaker working in British cinema today. Secrets & Lies is an absolute masterpiece, and is truly a magnificent, beautiful film that discusses some important issues in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Beautiful work from a brilliant visionary.


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