Film Reviews

Life, and How We Live it

British filmmaker Mike Leigh often evidences genuine sympathy, if not boundless affection, for the characters who populate his bleakly comical, harshly realistic dramas. Cyril and Shirley, the working-class bohemians of his 1988 film High Hopes, might seem hopelessly naive in the context of Margaret Thatcher's England, but Leigh sees something sweetly idealistic in their unrepentant socialism. Johnny, the scruffy, motor-mouthed malcontent who rants his way through 1993's Naked, is brutally unpleasant to most of the people around him. But Leigh views him as powerfully fascinating -- and perversely amusing -- as he cuts loose with anarchic arias of anger, pain and deep-down dread.

And yet, for all his empathy, Leigh is absolutely merciless when it comes to staring long and hard at the most intimate encounters, the most devastating emotions, shared by his characters. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Secrets and Lies, Leigh's latest and perhaps most accessible film. Midway through the story, there is an episode that is as deeply affecting and profoundly discomforting as anything you are likely to see on any screen this year. And Leigh manages to achieve his effect by doing nothing more spectacular than keeping his camera turning for eight minutes, gazing dispassionately at life in all its traumatic messiness.

Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a blowzy East End factory worker in her mid-forties, is seated in a nondescript cafe near a railway station. She is stunned, and with good reason. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a London optometrist, has just announced that she is the daughter Cynthia gave up for adoption more than two decades ago. That, of course, is fairly shocking news. But what really has Cynthia shaken is the fact that, while she is white, Hortense is black.

Mind you, Cynthia is not a bigot. But she simply cannot believe Hortense's words, or her own eyes. "I don't mean nothin' by it, darling," she manages to gasp, "but I ain't never been with a black man in my life." And maybe she truly believes this is so. But Leigh isn't going to let her off that easily. As the camera continues its fixed, implacable stare, Cynthia sits and thinks. And then, suddenly, her eyes grow wide and watery. Her expression reflects the stunning impact of something long forgotten. "Oh, Jesus Christ almighty!" she wails. The past has just reached out to backhand her. And it hurts.

This grueling epiphany is typical of the undiluted naturalism that is Mike Leigh's stock in trade. When he makes a movie, Leigh never starts out with a script, or even much in the way of a detailed plot synopsis. Rather, he prefers to get together with a small group of actors for six months or so of experimentation and improvisation. First, he works with each actor on an individual basis to invent his or her character. Then the cast gets together to invent, under Leigh's watchful guidance, the relationships and interactions of the characters. Only then does Leigh begin to jot down dialogue. There is little on-camera improvisation during the actual filming of a Mike Leigh movie. But that is only because, by the time the cameras are turning, everyone involved knows everything there is to know about what each character knows, does, regrets and hopes. The end result is a drama with the look and sound of a documentary, a complex fiction with the blunt immediacy of fact. Not surprisingly, Leigh has cited John Cassavetes as a major artistic influence.

In Secrets and Lies, Leigh and his collaborators create an extended family bound by blood ties and interlocking dysfunctions. Cynthia, a basically goodhearted but hopelessly self-absorbed woman, lives in a shabby townhouse with her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), an aimless and cheerless street sweeper. Cynthia isn't exaggerating very much when she chides Roxanne for moping around the house "with a face like a slapped ass." But really, it's easy to understand why Roxanne would be depressed about living at home with her mother, the sort of weepy, aggressively vulnerable type who wants everyone to know how many sacrifices she has made for loved ones, who puddles into tears at each real or perceived slight.

It's just as easy to understand why Maurice (Timothy Spall), Cynthia's younger brother, hasn't spoken to his sister in more than a year. Yes, he loves her. And, yes, he feels a bit guilty about their estrangement. But Maurice has made a relatively comfortable life for himself and Monica (Phyllis Logan), his wife, as a wedding and portrait photographer. They live in a modern suburban home far away from Maurice's East End roots, with almost enough comfort to compensate for their inability to have children.

Secrets and Lies doesn't make a big deal about this, but it's hinted that, largely as a result of their childlessness, Maurice dotes on his niece, and Monica isn't at all jealous. It is Maurice's idea to celebrate Roxanne's 21st birthday with a party that will serve as a kind of family reunion. To be sure, it won't be a large gathering. After all, Maurice and Cynthia lost their parents many years ago. (After their mother's death, Cynthia more or less raised her younger brother -- something she never tires of reminding him.) And even if Roxanne's father is still alive, Cynthia wouldn't know where to find him after all these years if her life depended upon it. Like Hortense, Roxanne is the product of a brief encounter. Obviously, Cynthia was something of a free agent while in her prime.

Given Leigh's freewheeling approach to character invention and plot construction, it's a little surprising that, when Roxanne's party gets under way, Secrets and Lies begins to seem contrived and conventional. Sure enough, the party comes across as the kind of dramatic device that playwrights and screenwriters usually rely upon to trigger revelations and reconciliations. Cynthia invites Hortense to the party, with predictable results. One thing leads to another, characters say things they never thought they would and the movie begins to resemble nothing so much as a well-made play. One character actually screams the words "secrets and lies" during an especially overwrought moment, leading the audience to expect a sudden thunderclap or, at the very least, another swell of Andrew Dickson's intrusive musical score.

And yet even when it moves perilously close to the edge of soap opera, Secrets and Lies is sustained by the persuasive sincerity of its performances and the raw immediacy of its heartfelt emotions. Brenda Blethyn won the Best Actress prize last spring at the Cannes Film Festival -- the movie itself earned the prestigious Palme d'Or -- and her performance is both memorably moving and richly comical. (At one point, while speaking of Roxanne's upcoming birthday, Cynthia notes, "I don't know what she wants. Apart from me, under a bus.") But Timothy Spall is every bit as good as Maurice, a man who loves so deeply and selflessly that you suspect he will never feel loved enough.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is marvelously subtle in the way she reveals Hortense's fears, joys and obsessions. Claire Rushbrook is funny and ferocious in just the right measures as Roxanne. And Phyllis Logan is quietly devastating as Monica, a woman who loves her husband almost as much as she hates herself for her inability to conceive. Since she can't create life, she is all the more determined to create the perfect home. She proudly guides her party guests on a tour of her interior decorations. Pointing to the walls of a bedroom, she confides, "I think the peach tones make it look quite tranquil." Another director might have tried to make Monica look ridiculous at this point. Not Mike Leigh. He may not care much for tranquil tones, but he fully appreciates the working of the human heart, and the things we tell ourselves so we don't think about other things. Throughout this long but absorbing movie, Leigh is indefatigable in his pursuit of truth, but patient and sympathetic in his depiction of liars.

Secrets and Lies. Directed by Mike Leigh.
With Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan and Timothy Spall.

Rated R.
142 minutes.

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Joe Leydon