Mike Leigh’s first film in three years has all the feel of a career-summarizing work. A return to his less stygian, pre-Naked style of dysfunctional dramatic comedy, but painted on a far more ambitious and serious canvas, Secrets & Lies is unquestionably a finely observed, deeply felt work, though with some nagging problems in pacing and structure.
Much like Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdeameanors, pic yo-yos between sequences of interior drama and classic observational humor, with the emphasis on the former. In its more intense sequences, often shot in long, tightly framed takes, Secrets & Lies is almost Leigh’s version of Scenes from a Marriage.
Film opens gradually, with the funeral of the adoptive parents of a young black woman, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist with a yuppie-ish London life-style. One by one, we meet the other characters, either at work or at home: middle-aged factory worker Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who lives with her unsmiling, argumentative daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), a road sweeper, in a terraced house in a working-class area; and Cynthia’s younger bro, Maurice (Timothy Spall), a portrait photographer who’s moved to an upscale, leafy suburb with his snooty wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan).
Plot driver is Hortense’s decision, now that she’s sans family, to discover her birth parents, not least when it emerges that her biological mother may have been white.
Blethyn (Brad Pitt’s mom in A River Runs through It) juggles the twin facets of her role with consummate skill. It’s a complex performance – funny, pitiable and stereotypical, but very real. Spall’s turn as Maurice will come as a surprise to those who know him best as the loony restaurateur in Life Is Sweet. Maurice emerges as the strongest and wisest of the pic’s gallery of dysfunctional, a role bolstered by Spall’s careful underplaying.
Despite its accomplishments, the pic doesn’t sustain its length. Not enough new is brought to the table after the first few reels to justify some of the more extended heart-to-hearts, and the long-awaited birthday set piece is too swift in its resolution and too long coming (some 100 minutes in). At one point the pic almost grinds to a halt with the introduction of a completely extraneous character, the previous owner of Maurice’s business.
1996: Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Brenda Blethyn), Supp. Actress (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Director, Original Screenplay.