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Cannes Monologue: Secrets and Lies

Andrew with a Cannes edition of our monologue series...

The 2014 Cannes Film Festival begins tomorrow and The Film Experience is doing its part to keep things Cannes focused with our list of favourite Palme D’Or winners, Diana’s upcoming coverage on the ground, and more. To continue the party let's turn to the Palme D'Or winner that topped my own team ballot, Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (1996).

Brenda Blethyn plays Cynthia Purley, a woman who spends much of her time jabbering away (often incoherently). Like Anne Baxter, featured last week, it’s Brenda’s domination of her scenes that fool you into considering her scenes are more monologue-driven than they actually are.

[18 year-old spoilers follow...]

Secrets and Lies has a fine ensemble but it's impossible to look away from Brenda Blethyn's fantastic turn even when you want to - Cynthia can be draining, even overwhelming and exhausting to watch. Cynthia's arc is composed from a string of breakdown scenes wherein she's reacting to family secrets and issues and they are all pitched perfectly. The one which is most significant comes midway through the film when she meets the daughter she gave up for adoption some decades ago when she was a teenager.

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Oscar nominated) has come looking for her biological mother but Cynthia never saw the baby and is doubtful that this black young lady is that daughter she gave up. Hortense can only look on, seemingly as exhausted as we feel, while watching Cynthia internalise the information and then break apart a little. Cynthia is certain that Hortense is not, cannot be, her daughter.

“I mean…well, look at me.”

Listen, I don’t mean nothing by it darling, but I ain’t never been with a black man in my life.  No disrespect nor nothing, I’d have remembered, wouldn’t I?”

(A few moments’ pause. A memory)

“Oh bloody hell. Oh Jesus Christ, oh my.  I’m sorry sweetheart.  I’m so ashamed.”

It’s a convulsive performance in every sense of the word but Brenda's characterization never feels forced. Secrets and Lies is notable, as all Mike Leigh films are, for being scripted largely through long months of improvisations with the actors in rehearsal. Cynthia’s fits, though sizeable, never feel disingenuous. Each bit of dialogue is matched with intermittent howls of feelings and twitchy physical movements. Leigh’s camera remains static, watching. This seven minute scene was shot in a single, uninterrupted take and it was the first time Brenda met Marianne, and realised that the actor playing Hortense was black. It helps in making the feverish pitch of her reaction here rooted in something real.

For all of Cynthia’s lower class faults Secrets and Lies subverts your expectations in treating her not with judgemental mockery but with compassion. Cynthia may seem unhinged, but the moment is tender.

“I can’t look at you. 

I didn’t know sweetheart, honest I didn’t know. I didn’t know you was black.   Daft, I thought they got the dates all wrong.  All this time I thought you was born 6, 6 weeks premature. But you weren’t, you wasn’t.”

 Hortense wants to know who her father was.

You don’t want to know that darling. Listen, I want to be honest with ya, but I can’t tell you that sweetheart, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  Look at ya.  I’m a bit of a disappointment to ya ain’t I?”

We never do find out who her ather was, left to wonder with Hortense. But her praternity is less important than the bond the two women forge over the duration of the film. This is Brenda's moment, but Marianne Jean-Baptiste's quiet anger but warm watchfulness is essential to making Cynthia's confession work.

Before they leave the café Hortense asks, Why didn't you want to see me when I was born?

Well I couldn’t, I was too upset see.  They wanted me to. They wanted me to hold you, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.  I didn’t know if I was coming or going.

I was only a little girl myself, 16. I didn’t have no choice. If I’d of seen you I’d of wanted to keep you, you do believe me don’t cha sweetheart?  I don’t blame ya darling.”

There are many facets to Cynthia Purley's character but it's her proclivity for self-flagellation which is most pervasive. It's a trait the small cast of characters seem to have in common, each of them carrying some type of guilt with them over the years. When the end comes and the secrets and lies are exorcised the film's conclusion feels earned and and movingly poignant. The kitchen-sink drama is one that the British have often excelled at though this outwardly modest subgenre rarely wins the approval of awards bodies. Even rarer are the films mentioned when lists of "Greatest ___" are compiled. So, I always hold its Cannes triumph as one of my favourite awards moments. Blethyn would go on to be a nominee in a truly excellent Best Actress Oscar lineup. It's difficult to grudge Frances McDormand her Fargo Oscar but for all the purported arbitrariness of awards whenever I catch a minute of this performance I always mourn the fact that so few remember or discuss it today.

Nathaniel asked on twitter which actor we miss. Brenda was the first name to come to mind. Few performances have ever moved me as much. Truly, a performance for the ages.

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Reader Comments (18)

Her performance here breaks me apart. Trying to choose between Blethyn, McDormand and Watson that year would have been challenging. Those are easily three of the best actress performances of the 90s.
But anyway... Watching Secrets & Lies at 17 is definitely one of my formative experiences in learning what movies can be, in loving Mike Leigh, and in my budding actressexuality.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Amazing film filled with incredible performances and writing.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

All respect to Frannie but she is supporting and Blethyn here is staggering in her authenticness as is Baptiste,i have never since seen anyone emody a character like Baptitste did,some complain she is too subtle and has no big scenes but that's the character to have a shouty monologue would have been out of place and i love the fact that Blethyn did not know her child was blackBaptiste is so believable that i really beleived this was happening.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

mark -- nah. i know it's off topic but at least Oscar sometimes gets the category right (as they did with Frances). Aalthough they messed up there, too, pretending that William Macy was supporting

mike -- that lineup is kind of amazing in that how did it ever come into existence? that year had so much good work though that i still feel bad for the ones left outside the shortlist. sometimes it's all about timing. show up in a weak year and it can be so much easier to get that title before your name.

May 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Utterly real and heartbreaking. What an Oscar lineup that year. I have a special place for Diane that year.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookes -- i love Diane but she's the one i'd surely replace that year just because there was so much tremendous happening in unlikely places: Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, Jennifer Tilly in Bound, and the rock stars had their fans too: Courtney Love in Larry Flynt or Madonna in Evita.

May 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great film. I perfectly remember the moment I first saw this scene in a tiny movie theatre -that no longer exists- with my mom. We were amazed. It felt so raw. Lesley Manville as a social worker gives an incredible performance too.

I can't wait for the new Mike Leigh. As far as I'm concerned, no one gets better performances on film these days (Sorry Pedro, you're a little distracted lately).

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I love Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies. Blethyn's my preferred winner. I think it's karma that she and Watson were nominated again together two years after losing their deserving to win Lead Actress bids.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Thanks for posting this, I saw this movie with a friend who is a social worker, and she said it was absolutely true to life. I loved both Brenda and Marianne in this, their performances hit me right in the chest. It is an intense movie, it's gripping, and leaves a person emotionally moved in the best possible way. Brenda Blethyn is wonderful in Pride and Prejudice, and currently does wonderful work in a TV series on BBC with "Vera". Mike Leigh is a treasure.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Brenda's is one of my all-time favorite performances. She is so heartbreaking and tender and honest and funny and real in S&L. She hasn't had such a good role since. She and Mike need to re-team.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Nathan, I'd probably take off KST to get in Madonna, who I adored in Evita. But then I'm still leaving out a lot of great talent, including Debbie Reynolds in Mother. I haven't seen Citizen Ruth, I need to correct that situation. Love Laura.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I love SECRETS & LIES too, one of those films one comes out of the cinema in a daze from. Brenda is still going strong here in the UK and was a delight on an interviewshow last week. She is currently playing VERA in a detective series here, where she is the shambolic detective Vera investigating a murder each week. They are very well done but not really my cup of tea, but its great seeing Brenda continuing to be busy, like other Mike Leigh regulards Alison Steadman, Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville - who affected me similarly in Leigh's ANOTHER YEAR, one of those performances one can't forget.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike O'Sullivan

1996 is full of fantastic performances but I have to give a shout out to 2 unsung performances Meril in Marvin's Room for the fish hooks scene alone and Nicole truly bringing it in The Portrait of a Lady although all the focus went to Hershey and deservedly so,my fave all time supporting performance any decade.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

"This seven minute scene was shot in a single, uninterrupted take and it was the first time Brenda met Marianne, and realised that the actor playing Hortense was black. It helps in making the feverish pitch of her reaction here rooted in something real."

Just to clarify, this isn't true - Mike Leigh's scripts are solidly set in stone by the time the cameras start rolling. I think what you mean is that, during the chronological work-shopping stage, this was the first time that Brenda met Marianne and found out that Cynthia's daughter was black. That initial disbelief during improvisation would then be used (and remembered) in the script and the filmed performance.

Hope that this makes sense? During the work-shopping stage, Leigh only allows actors to meet during improvised scenes in the order that they meet in the story, so that they experience a 'true' first reaction rather than mentally preparing themselves. They can then recall and use this 'true' first reaction and give a (possibly) more authentic final performance during filming.

Similar to this would be the big reveal scene in Vera Drake...

Anyway, I love, love, love this film - Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste, McDormand, Watson and Matarrazzo are my own line-up for Leading Actress - this much correlation with Oscar is unheard of - GOOD JOB ACADEMY!

I second the Lesley Manville love - she's my win in Supporting (and Phyllis Logan makes my line-up too - I found it hard to believe her in Downton Abbey initially as she'll always be Monica to me)

Finally, I think that Timothy Spall (understandably) gets overlooked due to the powerhouse actresses surrounding him, but he's WONDERFUL in this.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Yes, this couldn't possibly be their first meeting (recorded on film) unless they filmed it months before they did the rest of the movie (which I guess is possible). The whole movie after this wouldn't make sense and they couldn't have improvised the whole thing in the short filming time.

And also, I think that Brenda is a better actress than that. Surely she can recreate a moment later for the camera, maybe several times. Does anything ever go perfectly the first time around? Only if there is a major prep beforehand.

kemit, dave --- it did seem odd, but the info came from two pieces I recall reading about the making of the film. One was an interview with Brenda, here: http://bombmagazine.org/article/1988/brenda-blethyn, but I'm not finding the other corroborating one. Brenda seems to suggest the scene in the film IS the first take of it. She does say it took ten months to film the entire film, so who knows, maybe filming that scene first before everything filmed was possible?

brookesbpy, nathaniel - that really was a fantastic year for the leading women. It's Brenda in front and then Kristin Scott Thomas behind, for me. But I'd find it so hard to nix any of the five even though I'd want to make space for Nicole, Madonna, maybe Dern.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

I truly dislike this film. I was in school when we did go to see this playing in a film festival. I was interested in film at that point but seeing this kept me away from smaller films for years. I tought they were all going to be like this one. It is very tedious and quite pretentious and would work much better as a book. The performaces were the worst part in my opinion. They were either too subdued or cartoony.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChinoiserie

If they had the guts to surprise the audience with an Oscar to Binoche, they should've had the balls to give it to Jean-Baptiste. She isn't very demonstrative as Blethyn is, but when she feels sad or uncomfortable, or uncomfortably sad (the confession to the entire family scene), it's an amazing demonstration of great subtle acting. Even in these captions, when Blethyn is the expressive performer, it's Jean-Baptiste's reaction that breaks my heart.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

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