Secrets & Lies Reviews
~August 18, 2016~
It even could've been something close to a sappy/saccharine Guess Who's Coming to Dinner scenario, given that it's essentially about a black woman who discovers her biological mother is white. We never see the father - no need to, it was one of those bad moments in teenage years that isn't easily forgotten, but it's been put into a corner of memory for Brenda Blethyn's Cynthia at this point in her life in this story. But race isn't at all a big issue, and that's one of the first strong things to know about this film - at the same time, the filmmaker is aware of what he's putting out there, and hopes (or maybe knows) the audience will not only buy it, they'll look to what is much deeper: the pain of loss of that mother/daughter connection, but all of that other history each character has. What I mean to say is that race is not unacknowledged here, but it's not the primary focus.
What you get in Secrets & Lies is the story of people at work in their relationships and their everyday lives. The people in this film are relatively working class - perhaps doing a little better than not are Hortense, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, is an Optometrist, and Maurice, Timothy Spall, the brother of Cynthia, runs a photography studio - but we see that they have the work that they do and the people they're close to. That's it, and that's what counts for Leigh. But of course the title itself is not to be taken lightly; the structure is kind of built upon it, of what secrets/lies will be revealed through the due course of the film, even those I didn't think really that deeply about. And yet, as a great dramatist, it's right there in front of me, in the subtext of Leigh's scenario and in what the characters say as much as the up-front stuff (Maurice's marriage for example).
There's time taken to set up the characters, and I loved that about the film as well. A soap might just dive right into the 'Who is your birth mother' plot-line, or maybe after so much uninteresting time setting up people, to the point of who cares. But we know who they are with just their behavior - Cynthia's fragile form, her daughter's 'Leave me alone mum!' manner, and of course Maurice, who as a photographer has to try to make people happy. Some of those montages, by the way, are simply delightful, full of the kind of empathy that can be seen from a filmmaker in just flashes: even as they're just sketches of people, they feel fully realized, albeit once or twice as jokes. So that when Maurice does this, and then goes home to his wife and the ok-but-tense relationship there, we know where his head may be at. Also interesting is the fact that we aren't shown that Maurice and Cynthia are brothers right away - why are their stories connected, if at all - until he comes over to her house and that itself is a tremendous scene.
This is the sort of cinematic experience that had me on the edge of my seat merely by the emotional stakes of those involved. How the family may or may not find out isn't as crucial as how it will affect them, how we might (or just will) be affected by them. Blethyn may be shedding a lot of tears here, but she's playing a damaged, depressed person, and it never comes into question why she acts the way she does, and Leigh, as with his other films (especially the even more uncomfortable-in-a-good-way Naked) never judges. Other characters may do that to others, especially as things rile high to the surface, but he won't. You want to know what happens to these people once the film ends, and Leigh leaves you wanting more, genuinely so, not in any cheap way. A lovely, harrowing experience this is.
The central plot of Secrets and Lies had heaps of potential: a goes in search of and is reunited with her birth mother. That in itself would make for a great character-driven, emotional movie. Throw in the intrigue that the daughter is mixed-race/black and the mother is white and it adds even more potential.
Unfortunately, the finished product doesn't live up to this potential. It drags along throughout and never gets going. Mike Leigh likes to start his movies slowly and build momentum, but this doesn't even get out of first gear.
Plus, just when you thought the movie was already too long, you have random, pointless scenes that add nothing to the movie, eg the when the previous owner of the photography studio comes back.
Throw into the mix the fact that Brenda Blethyn's character, Cynthia, has to be one of the more irritating characters in movie history: constantly whining, screeching and nagging, interspersed with random crying.
Unfortunately, she is in just about every scene, so it's like constant nails-across-a-chalkboard, all through the movie.
The remainder of the cast don't do much to help the movie, either. Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan are incredibly dull, or, at least, the characters they played were.
There are some good moments, however. Marianne Jean-Baptiste gives a great performance as Hortense. I found her character the only likable and engaging one in the entire movie.
The photography scenes in the studio were quite funny and/or sweet too.
I never knew of Mike Leigh's famous 'improvisation-acting' technique prior to watching this, and the more I look back, the more I realize that's what allowed me to fall in love with the film in the first place.
We're faced with characters so natural and substantial, they could easily be people in our lives. They face completely human dramas, things like keeping secrets, coping with death and mediating between relatives who don't get along - and with these elements coming together perfectly, the story is told from beginning to end without needing to catch a breath. Every scenario tells us more about each character, each dilemma, and in doing so, allows us to care more how everything turns out.
I've joked that there's enough content in 'Secrets & Lies' that it could've been a miniseries, but I'm glad it's this instead. I'm convinced this is Mike Leigh's masterpiece and it's definitely one of my favorite movies of all time.