Highly acclaimed writer and director Mike Leigh's (LIFE IS SWEET
and NAKED) latest film is SECRETS & LIES. The picture won the Palme
d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and the lead actress, Brenda
Blethyn, got the best actress award for her work in the film. The
picture is an incredible character study, that goes from morose to life
affirming. It is a complex picture that is both tragic and comedic.
Most of all, it is a highly involving and rewarding film for the
In the press kit, Leigh describes it thus, "SECRETS & LIES is
about roots and identity, the ever changing images we all have of
ourselves and each other, and our compulsive need to reaffirm
constantly who and what we are, and where we come from. It is also a
tale of love and caring and deep longings, and of the awesome
relentlessness of the passage of time."
As the show started, I was not sure if I was going to like it or
not. The lead actress, Brenda Blethyn (from A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT)
as middle-aged Cynthia, seemed about to give one of those performances
like Crissy Rock's in LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD where the character is so
unlikable that watching the show becomes a challenge. For the record,
I loved Crissy Rock and LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD even if it is hard to
stomach. In SECRETS & LIES, this did not turn out to be the case, and
the audience develops both an empathy and a love for Cynthia.
Cynthia's brother Maurice (Timothy Spall from LIFE IS SWEET) is a
prosperous photographer. Although his specialty is weddings, he will
photograph anyone. Like a Woody Allen film, there is an hilarious
sequence where we have short clips of different people having their
pictures made. The subjects range from a little boy who keeps picking
his nose to a middle aged woman who laughs at herself dressed in
clothes for her boudoir. It had all of the critics at the screening in
Maurice's wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) stays at home spending his
money on their pristine house (sets by Alison Chitty). She explains
the details down to the choice of the color peach for the bath since it
has an aura of tranquillity. When showing off the house she scurries
around closing toilet lids as she shows off each of the bathrooms. It
is the classic house made not to be lived in.
Cynthia is an unhappy, depressed, and unattractive factory worker
who lives with her grown daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who is a
street cleaner and seems to be nothing more than a younger clone of her
mom. Cynthia looks at her swollen legs and remarks that they are as
pretty as a teenager's. She doesn't believe it, but it stops her from
crying. When she talks, she squeaks, but she spends most of the first
part of the film crying. For a while, I didn't think she would ever
Soon the show cuts to a black optometrist named Hortense (Marianne
Jean-Baptiste). More on the character's name at the end of the review.
Hortense is an orphan, and now that her adopted parents have died, she
wants to find her birthmother. Since the late 70s, the law in England
says she can read all of her old birth records. She does and finds
that her mother is the white Cynthia.
Hortense had a happy childhood, and she is a successful, college
educated professional. The difference in the color of their skins is a
metaphor for all of their many differences. Hortense has the
self-confidence that her birth mother lacks. Parts of the mother
reminded me of Ratzo Rizzo from MIDNIGHT COWBOY.
When Hortense telephones her mother, her mother tells her to never
call again. Given their apparent incompatibility, the audience almost
wants to cry out, forget it already. The rest of the show is about
them getting to know and like each other and coming to terms with their
The script is intelligent and never predictable. It tackles
sensitive issues, and although the director lets the actors hang out
their souls for all to see, it is never exploitive and always
sensitive. It is also so funny that it would be possible to view the
show totally as a comedy and ignore the messages, but that would be a
pity. The sad cello music (Andrew Dickson) serves notice that the
picture is to be taken seriously not matter how big the laughs. The
one criticism I have is that some of the scenes go on too long, and the
film would have been better had editor Jon Gregory been more vigorous
in his approach.
The show is aptly named. When Cynthia sees that Hortense is
black, she seriously believes that Hortense can not be the daughter she
gave up at birth. The script makes this and all of the other secrets
and lies in the story quite plausible.
The show can be enjoyed for the big story or the small ones. When
a once gorgeous crash victim comes in to get her photo made for her
solicitor, a touched Maurice tells her, "Life isn't fair then is it.
Somebody always draws the short straw." Maurice is a sensitive guy
with a beer belly and his own secrets and demons. At one point in the
show, he excuses one of the character's actions with, "She can't help
it; she never had enough love." After telling another of the family
secrets, he confides, "Secrets and lies. We're all in pain."
The show is a grand collection of complex characters, and all
become sympathetic by the end. Each has a story that will touch or
amuse you or both.
SECRETS & LIES is a bittersweet comedy and tragedy that is wrapped
up effectively. When it is over, you realize you have seen some
incredible performances and a magnificent directorial job. I hope to
see Brenda Blethyn's name when the Oscar nominations come out.
I do have to note that if I was a girl, my mother seriously
intended to name me Hortense after her favorite doll from childhood.
Personally, I can not imagine a more horrible name, apologies to all of
Hortense's out there in the world, and I thank my lucky stars that I
was born male with name I like rather than female with a name like
Hortense. The excellent actress playing Hortense at least made me feel
a little bit better about my close call with that hideous name.
SECRETS & LIES runs a little too long at 2:22. At the time of the
press screening, it had not yet been rated by the MPAA, but the little
bad language in the show has a few F words so it will probably get an
R. There is no sex, nudity, or violence, but it is a very intense
show. It would be fine for any teenager, but not younger. I give the
film a strong recommendation and award it *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes