Even if you’ve never seen a Mike Leigh film, chances are you know his style of filmmaking. He and Ken Loach are synonymous with documentary realism, and natural performances. Leigh in particular is renowned for his improvisational process, creating the characters with his actors prior to filming, and developing the story from there. Secrets & Lies might be the quintessential example of this, and is considered by many to be his best film.
When her adoptive mother dies, Hortense (Marianne Jean Baptiste) a young black optometrist, decides to track down her birth mother, who she is shocked to discover is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) a white factory worker. Cynthia has a fractious relationship with her other daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) and is estranged from her well-off brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) and his detached wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). As Hortense and Cynthia tentatively reconnect, the family convenes for Roxanne’s 21st birthday party, where everything is finally laid bare.
More than any other of Leigh’s films, Secrets & Lies is best known for one iconic scene – the initial cafe meeting between Cynthia and Hortense, where Cynthia can’t comprehend how her daughter is black, shot in a single uninterrupted take. This scene is rightly lauded – it’s both dramatic and funny (Blethyn’s “I’m not your mother am I? How can I be?” is hilarious) but there’s a lot more to the film than this scene.
In my memory this was a painfully overwrought film, but there are uplifting, charming moments too – the customers in Spall’s photography studio (played by Leigh’s regular collaborators) only appear briefly, yet hint at rich backstories, any one of which could be the premise for another film. Maurice’s job is a canny way of summing up the film’s central theme without being too obvious. As a portrait photographer, it’s his job to capture the perfect image, no matter the tension going on beneath the surface. One couple having a bitter row have their photo taken quickly in a brief moment of levity, only to continue arguing the moment it’s done. The secrets and lies of the central characters are present from the start, but everyone has buried them so successfully that things have gone unsaid for years.
Baptiste is perfect as Hortense; measured and likeable, she’s essentially the film’s protagonist, and probably the most well-rounded character. Her awkwardness at the party is palpable, but so is the warmth with which she talks to both Cynthia and Roxanne in the film’s closing moments. Early on we see her giving a little girl her eye-test, and it’s one of the sweetest moments in the film, demonstrating her calm nature and acting as a neat counterpoint for Maurice’s job.
Blethyn is sympathetic, but doesn’t shy away from her character’s less appealing traits. Self loathing and bitter, she lashes out at Roxanne in a really nasty way, but Blethyn never loses sight of her humanity, and her relationship with Baptiste is genuinely touching. Her sometimes hysterical performance is tempered by Spall’s beautifully observed, down-to-earth turn, playing someone who is professionally assertive, but whose marriage is quietly imploding. Meanwhile Logan is quietly devastating, giving what might be the most affecting performance in the film.
The supporting cast is also full of brilliantly realised characters. Lesley Manville’s social worker is simultaneously likeable and frustratingly distracted, and Ron Cook is both funny and tragic as Maurice’s former boss, now a homeless drunk, bitterly resentful of Maurice’s success. Even better on this re-watch is Elizabeth Berrington as Maurice’s dippy assistant, whose tearful outburst at the party is one of the film’s most genuinely moving moments.
Mike Leigh has since ventured away from this style with period pieces like Peterloo and Vera Drake, but Secrets & Lies is the perfect encapsulation of his unique method of filmmaking. It’s a poignant, funny film, and a superb introduction to one of Britain’s most celebrated auteurs.
Oddly for Criterion, these are a little sparse, with only three interviews as special features. Two with Leigh and one with Baptiste. All of these are insightful and interesting as you would expect, but it still feels a little light on this occasion.