After directing nearly 20 years of TV movies and a few well-received features, filmmaker Mike Leigh found a heap of acclaim for this unique 1996 family drama about the quiet secrets we all keep and the dangers of such silence. Leigh and his solid UK cast take a seemingly simple tale - an adopted woman meets her birth mother - and unleash a raw, well-layered character piece that examines the complexities of relationship. Their efforts resulted in five Oscar nominations and won Leigh the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.
Leigh's storied, unconventional approach to filmmaking is part acting workshop, part pure cinema... and a performer's dream. He assembles a troupe of players, introduces them to character and storyline, and works through weeks of improvisation. The movie's dialogue and action are created on the spot during that exercise, are later morphed into a note-jammed screenplay, and then become a polished film.
With an approach like that, it's no surprise that Secrets & Lies, as with nearly all of Leigh's just-regular-folk movies, is all about the acting. Really good acting. Upon the death of her adoptive mom, a quiet optometrist by the name of Hortense Cumberbatch (then-newcomer Marianne-Jean Baptiste) completes the painful formality of finding her birth information and, in turn, the whereabouts of her natural mother. A couple of phone calls eventually lead to an awkward meeting where white lower-class birth mom Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, Lovely & Amazing) swiftly recalls exactly how she came to have a black daughter.
But she doesn't tell. In between hysterical bouts of weeping - a phenomenal skill of Blethyn's - Cynthia simply can't bring herself to tell Hortense who her father was. It's just one of a series of dark, painful secrets that fester in Cynthia's family, a collection of sad disillusioned people who share in different degrees of unhappiness. Sound depressing? To a point, especially at the film's close, Leigh and his actors do edge uncomfortably toward melodrama. But so much uncommon honesty has already been conveyed that the tears and troubles don't seem hokey -- the cast already has us hooked.
Most of the credit can go to Timothy Spall, a Leigh favorite (he's starred in four Leigh films to date). As Cynthia's forlorn brother Maurice, Spall displays a fascinating combination of manly confidence and sad resignation. As a successful portrait photographer, he sees a world of revelation within his subjects, handling it all with chivalry and responsibility. As things quickly disintegrate, he's the family anchor - yet he too hides something unsaid.
Leigh brings out such competent performances by layering unmistakable cinematic moments - Maurice photographing an accident victim is particularly arresting - with a hands-off voyeur's vision. In the midst of an uncut, static eight-minute-long shot, it's impossible not to be drawn in by conversation; often times, the excitement of improvisation is still right there on the screen.
As with his Secrets & Lies follow-up, the excellent Career Girls, Mike Leigh introduces us to regular people doing the sort of things that make life interesting (or sweet, pardon the reference). His characters look normal, act normal, chatter, and scream. And even when they choose not to speak, not to give away secrets, they're still heard.
Aka Secrets and Lies.