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Mike Leigh at 75: "Secrets & Lies"

By Salim Garami

What's good?

Timothy Spall's character Maurice Purley in Mike Leigh's 1996 Palme d'Or winner Secrets & Lies is a photographer and every scene we see him at work involves his usually-successful, sometimes-not-as-much attempts to amiably convince his clients to take a big smile before he takes the photo. Sometimes it's a direct appeal and sometimes it's just by making an off-hand joke that catches them. Usually it's preceeded by a very slight window of sadness implying a long and exhaustive story on the subject's part. It feels like a very reflexive move on Mike Leigh's part: Secrets & Lies, like most of Leigh's works, is a humanist tale of some very messy and sometimes sad parts of a large story but Leigh imbues it with a sense of delicate compassion, sometimes injecting a sense of humor about the situations, but always wanting the best for its characters.

It's certainly been his M.O. for ages.

But the story within Secrets & Lies that Leigh handles with delicacy isn't Maurice's necessarily - though we do revolve around him and find ourselves privy to his own sadnesses just as well as the people he shoot - but instead it is the story of the young Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who has just buried her adoptive mother and finds herself with a desire to track down her birth mother. What compels her to seek her birth mother out is not something Leigh really wants to give an answer for so much as pose the question - despite a comfortably successful life as an optometrist, we see hints of how messy her adoptive family may have been, such as an argument between her step-siblings over the late mother's home. And the adoption agent's inquiries as to Hortense's relationship with her stepmother only leads to Hortense's insistence that they loved each other and that's the end of it.

Maybe Hortense deep inside knows that life just isn't that simple, but her search leads her to Maurice's sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). It's not just because Cynthia is clearly a pushed-over working class emotional wreck with a young daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) that has her own anxieties that complicates things, it's also the clear racial disparity between the black Hortense and the white Cynthia.

It's a messy situation where certain characters (Roxanne and Maurice's overbearing wife Monica, played by Phyllis Logan), but life's a mess and that's what Leigh's always been great at proposing within all of his dramas throughout his time as an artist for over five decades. Secrets & Lies just proved itself to be the purest and most humane phrasing of that thesis through an impeccable cast of complex improvised performances aware of their characters enough to make the occasional conflicts feel from genuine perspectives and not because the script demands conflict, including Blethyn who won the Best Actress of Cannes that year, that also made the film the sort of unpredictable and sincere work that it is.

Secrets & Lies is always unafraid to present the characters within it as walking contradictions, with editing and framing determined to be generous with the thoughts we are privy to on its characters, and an overwhelming amount of forgiveness for their destructive tendencies or inability to get it together. This is precisely the sort of film that Leigh deserves to be remembered for.

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Reader Comments (21)

Definitely one of Mike Leigh's best films as well as a film deserving for the Palme d'Or though I think Breaking the Waves and Fargo were better films.

February 23, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Another wonderful film. Brenda Blethyn was a standout.

February 23, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I was just thinking about this movie today and did a search online for at least 30 minutes — not available anywhere in the US.. not amazon, iTunes, hbo, on demand, Hulu.. nowhere

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

This is very nice infromation
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February 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commentertravel agents in delhi

Frances McDormand has Brenda Blethyn’s Oscar. (Legally, I think I’m supposed to say “in my opinion”...)

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Crowe

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is wonderful in this and gives the best performance in any of Mike Leigh movies. And she sure definitely deserved the Oscar over Juliette Binoche.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

I love this film in the same category as Life is Sweet. This is one film where I forgot I was watching a film. It did not have a stock villain in the story yet it works so well. On the surface it looks like Monica verges on becoming one when she makes little irritable comments to Maurice and her cool attitude towards Cynthia and even a racist first impression towards Hortense until she shows a vulnerable side late in the film that exposes her insecurities and fears and guilt. Roxanne can be mean to Cynthia and later to Hortense when she discovered the truth about the latter's connection to her. But her first reaction after receiving a birthday gift from Hortense, and later in her conversation with Hortense when they were tentatively getting to be familiar with the notion of being sisters, allowed Rushbrook to flesh out a believable characterisation of a working class girl suddenly saddled with a sister.

Like most Leigh films watching Secrets & Lies felt like I was spying and eavesdropping on the ordinary lives of real people: the unfolding, the making, unmaking and co-making and how slowly and tentatively these same people bring things together in their own terms.

Performances were great all around that it is hard for me to single out each of them. It is more an ensemble work and much as I am glad of the recognition for Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, in my ideal world, the 4 ladies consisting of Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste, Logan & Rushbrook should have been jointly awarded a Best Actress award like what Cannes used to do with ensemble films. Even Lesley Manville's cameo was most effective, as a sympathetic social worker, and Elizabeth Berrington's steady and reliable Jane.

There was a brief scene of Alison Steadman as one of the women being photographed by Maurice. I wish Steadman is still working actively -- she's so great in LIfe is Sweet and in the TV movie Abigail's Party. Plus in other early Mike Leigh films.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Lesley Manville as the social worker. Brilliant.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I too remeber Manville "getting" how social workers are.sympathetic to a point and always distracted,those sweets.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

How come no one brings up the implication the biracial daughter is a product of rape?

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

@ /3rtful - I was trying to keep it more low-key as a spoiler/development since even after Hortense finds Cynthia, the movie still has the question of her paternity as a thread being explored.

@ everybody else mentioning Manville - Curse my desire to keep this below 600 words because Manville was one of the absolute stand-outs of the film.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTinG

I love this film, it remains my favorite Mike Leigh picture. Its largeness of spirit, of finding something worthwhile in each character despite their damage/dysfunction, is remarkable. It's like a series of pictures (by Maurice) of humanity in all its messiness, but with hope and love. And what a group of tremendous performances, especially from Blenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall.

Leigh has made many fine films that I've enjoyed, but this is the one that really gets me.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

I’m really happy this won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes, as much as I love Breaking the Waves and Fargo. I feel the right choice was made.

My favourite thing about Mike Leigh is that he’s a genius.

February 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I think I saw this movie 10 times in the theater. So many layers. I love that he lets the performers ad lib a lot. It makes it all the more special.

it also reminds me ... Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Claire Rushbrook need more work.

February 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

I think I saw this movie 10 times in the theater. So many layers. I love that he lets the performers ad lib a lot. It makes it all the more special.

it also reminds me ... Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Claire Rushbrook need more work.

February 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Paranoid Android - It's available on Criterion Channel on Filmstruck. Filmstruck is marvelous.

February 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

A wonderful film, perhaps Leigh's best. Everyone from Spall to Baptiste to Blethyn to Manville is amazing in it and the final sequence where all the secrets and lies are laid bare is an emotional maelstrom. I bought S&L on DVD several years back and so glad I did. I've been itching to see it again, it's one of my every-so-often perennials.

February 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Blethyn is absolutely extraordinary here, as are Jean-Baptiste and Spall. Amusing as McDormand is, she really doesn't hold a candle to Blethyn (or the comparably sublime Emily Watson).

February 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

One of my favorite films. Brenda Blethyn was just on Graham Norton's radio show talking about this and other projects. My god, they are all so talented (and look so young!) And while, they didn't have 'movie star' careers by American standards, the whole cast has worked steadily, mostly in TV. Hortense Cumberbatch is an awesome character name.

FYI, it's also available on Youtube.

February 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

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December 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAssignment Help

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