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Secrets & Lies

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Secrets & Lies

Starring: Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn
Director: Mike Leigh
Rated: NR
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: September 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Lesley Manville, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

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 audience.

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 stitches.

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 stop crying.

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 differences.

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

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