Monday, March 23, 2015

1996 - Secrets and Lies

After an early morning trip to the airport, Kat and Charlie are back home, with my in-laws in tow. As everyone attempts to recover from their jet lag - and at 13 months, Charlie doesn't know if it's day or night, the poor little guy - I managed to write up my thoughts on the last film of this year of review.

Our final contender for the 1996 Best Picture prize is...

Secrets and Lies
Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh
Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

After her adopted mother passes away, London optometrist Hortense Cumberbatch (Jean-Baptiste) - probably not related to Benedict - decides to track down her birth mother. As a black woman, she is understandably surprised to discover that her mother is Cynthia Purley (Blethyn), a white woman who, despite a good heart, has the smarts and social graces of a small puppy. Cynthia and Hortense slowly develop a camaraderie but Cynthia baulks at introducing Hortense to her other daughter, Roxanne (Rushbrook), an ungrateful council worker. Eventually, however, Cynthia invites Hortense to a family gathering, hosted by her somewhat estranged brother, portrait photographer Maurice (Spall), and his wife Monica (Logan). It is at this soiree that the dysfunctional family's secrets and lies are finally exposed.

At first, Secrets and Lies comes across a little like a soap opera, and given the title, that's perhaps appropriate. The secrets and lies in this family are indeed of soap opera quality: life-changing and nothing less. But once you accept each character's predicament, the shades of soap opera fade away and you're left with quite an emotional ride. Writer/director Mike Leigh allows his audience to really absorb these people's lives by keeping an easy pace and often utilising lengthy and static shots in which the action (or mere dialogue, as the case may be) plays out in all its voyeuristic glory. The outdoor barbecue scene is particularly fascinating. There's tension, sure, which has been set up by the prior circumstances, but for the most part, the scene is just a seeming melange of very real and mundane conversations. It's captivating fly-on-the-wall stuff.

Due to the single-shot style, the entire picture would fall apart if the actors weren't engaging, but thankfully, the ensemble here is genuinely superb, working very well off each other. At the centre is a beautifully subdued performance by Timothy Spall (pictured), who many will recognise as Peter Pettigrew, but I first noticed him in a sarcastically memorable guest role in BBC's sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, clearly showing his comedic chops are on par with his dramatic ability. As a woman trying to get some answers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is intelligent and vulnerable, earning herself a Best Supporting Actress nod in the process. And yes, that's Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes, Phyllis Logan, turning in a strong performance as Spall's uptight wife. Stealing the show, though, is Brenda Blethyn with a powerhouse portrayal that could so easily have fallen into caricature. Cynthia is larger than life, for sure, but Blethyn roots her in reality, wearing her emotions on her sleeve. Secrets and Lies also received nominations for Mike Leigh's direction and screenplay, but sadly, the film walked away without any Oscars at all.


  1. I think Secrets & Lies is my favorite Mike Leigh film, and I've seen about eight of them. He seems to be your kind of director, Matt. Apparently he only gives the actors the details of their character, and not any of the others. Dialogue is primarily improvised. As an actor with improv experience, could you tell? It all seems so natural to me. IMDB mentioned that the scene where Brenda Blethyn meets her character's daughter for the first time, she had not previously seen Marianne Jean-Baptiste and had no idea she was black. Everyone was spot on, and I had forgotten that "Mrs. Hughes" was in it. His most frequently used performer, Leslie Manville was exceptional in her one scene as the social worker.

  2. It's interesting because I remember hearing about the improvised thing when I first saw Secrets & Lies almost 20 years ago, but this time around it struck me that it probably was more scripted than I originally thought. Still very natural, but there were subtle things that made it seem to me like written dialogue. From interviews with Mike Leigh, I think the misunderstanding is that when he says the film was improvised, he's referring to his rehearsal process. He gathers the actors together for a lengthy rehearsal period (which, in itself, is unusual for film) and then the story and dialogue are improvised as the actors play around with the characters Leigh has given them. But by the time filming begins, there's probably a proper script, although I'm sure there's still plenty of on-camera paraphrasing to keep it natural. And none of this takes away from the feat of it all. The whole process is incredibly unique and creative.

    I also think the story about Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste not meeting until they shot that scene is a bit dubious, only because of the logistics involved in shooting a film, particularly a scene shot on location in a public place. But perhaps Mike Leigh orchestrated their first meeting on the day they had to rehearse that scene, so the story may not be an entire fabrication.

  3. Thanks for clearing that up. You are right. I do remember reading about his rehearsals. With five Screenplay nominations, his authorship is surely validated. I've enjoyed seeing Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the defense attorney (barrister?) on the current Broadchurch series.