Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville
Country: UK, France
Running Time: 142 min
Year: 1996

In the UK, Mike Leigh had been a respected director, playwright and screenwriter for TV, film and the stage since the mid-60s. His TV work in the 70s was highly regarded and his films steadily grew in stature and acclaim. It was 1993’s Naked that was his first notable international success though, at least in terms of awards, with Leigh picking up Best Director at Cannes, along with a nomination for the Palme d’Or. Secrets & Lies, which followed in 1996, was when Leigh really got the recognition he deserved though.

Secrets & Lies not only won the Palme d’Or (along with a Best Actress award for Brenda Blethyn and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury), it picked up five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. Sadly it didn’t win any of these, but all the awards attention meant it became Leigh’s most financially successful film. Adjusting for inflation, it probably still holds this title, in fact.

I remember the Oscar ceremony that year as one of the first I stayed up to watch. Around that time, when I was 14, I’d only been getting more seriously into films over the past year or so. As such, I’d tried to see as many of the Oscar films as I could, but Secrets & Lies was one I skipped. Back then, I was firmly against any British films that conformed to the period or kitchen sink drama traditions and Secrets & Lies looked to fit the latter.

This was the reason it took me so long to get around to Mike Leigh in general. It wasn’t until I saw Another Year when it first came out in 2010 that I finally discovered what I’d been missing out on. I’ve been gradually trying to get through his back catalogue since and have only been disappointed with his most recent two, Mr Turner (which was very well made but not very engaging) and Peterloo (which was too politically heavy-handed for my tastes). Elsewhere, Leigh’s films have blown me away and never more so than my eventual viewing of Secrets & Lies for this Criterion Blu-ray release.

Secrets & Lies has a fairly simple premise. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a black optometrist living in London whose adoptive mother has just died quite suddenly. The grieving process makes her think about her biological mother, so she goes to social services to find out more about her.

Hortense discovers her biological mother is white factory worker Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and tracks her down, arranging over the phone to meet up. Cynthia is worried about her other daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who is just turning 21, finding out about Hortense though. She’d kept the baby she had as a teenager a secret from Roxanne and their relationship is quite strained as it is.

Cynthia’s relationships in general are quite strained or non-existent. She never married, so lives alone with Roxanne, who does her own thing most of the time. She was once close with her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), who helped bring up Roxanne when she was a baby, but over the years their contact has been brief and only over the phone. Their detachment is partly due to Maurice ‘moving up in the world’ with his successful photography business, whilst Cynthia struggled on her minimum wage working in a box factory. Maurice’s wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) doesn’t get on with Cynthia either, so she rarely gets invited around.

However, with Roxanne’s 21st birthday coming up, Maurice decides to invite her and Cynthia over to his and Monica’s new house for a barbecue. Cynthia decides to invite Hortense, claiming she’s just a friend from work and that, along with other family quarrels and tensions, point towards a pressure-cooker situation.

It all sounds like the story for a tacky TV movie or soap opera but, in the hands of the great Mike Leigh, it becomes something very special. In essence, it’s quite a typical film for the director, a low-key, character-based drama, with hints of comedy, in a believably authentic British setting. Once again, he employed his famous method of using lengthy rehearsal and improvisational sessions to develop his script too. This style and approach may not be anything new to the director, but by this stage he’d honed it to a fine craft and, for many, it produced his finest results (I’ve still got too many gaps in his filmography to fill to say for myself, but it’s my favourite so far).

Like the best of Leigh’s work, Secrets & Lies thrives on its humanist approach. There’s an often overwhelming sadness to the film, largely through Cynthia’s lonely, emotionally fragile state, but also a rich vein of subtle humour running throughout, keeping it brimming with life. This often comes through the natural but sharp dialogue, as well as some of the character interactions. The ever-dependable Lesley Manville, for instance, crops up in a memorable scene as a social worker who’s not as sensitive or focussed as you might expect, given the situation.

The performances in general are superb. Both Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste got Oscar nominations and rightfully so. Whilst Blethyn adds great sympathy and depth to the nervous wreck that is Cynthia, Jean-Baptiste is calm and collected as the well-adjusted Hortense. It’s a shame Spall didn’t get any awards recognition outside of the UK though (he got a BAFTA nomination), as he’s equally as good as his female co-stars. His Maurice is subtly effective, playing a good-natured amiable man that seems a bit of a pushover initially, but reveals himself to be the strongest in the family. As is the norm in Leigh’s work, the performances and characters are slightly larger than life (other than perhaps Hortense/Jean-Baptiste, who feels very natural) but just enough to make them hugely entertaining and engaging without losing the film’s sense of reality.

Leigh’s visual presentation is restrained but highly effective, keeping the film looking natural, making the most of the various London settings. He employs several long, uninterrupted takes during the film, including a powerhouse sequence in a ‘greasy spoon’ cafe where Hortense and Cynthia first meet. These allow the actors to do their thing without the safety or manipulation of any editing.

Speaking of which, the film is very long for such an intimate drama, but at no point did I ever lose interest or start clock-watching. Scenes are allowed to play out naturally and breathe, and though not every scene is vital to the central narrative, they all importantly serve the characters and their development. A prime example of this comes with the short inserts of Maurice at work. Whilst his home and family life is on shaky ground, Maurice shows a great talent for quietly making his photography subjects calm and at ease. These sequences help point towards the steps the character makes later on to ease the tensions that explode on screen.

A final nod, before wrapping things up, must also go to the score by Andrew Dickson. Performed by what sounds like a small chamber group, rather than an orchestra, the music has an intimate and melancholic quality that perfectly complements the film. I found it quite beautiful.

Overall then, Leigh’s techniques and qualities as a writer and director shine as brightly as ever. It has quite a simple message at the end about the importance of honesty and togetherness within families, but the film is overflowing with pitch-perfect observations of life. Performed remarkably well by a cast of Leigh regulars and a couple of newcomers, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

Secrets & Lies is out on 26th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is superb. The image is sharp and clean with a very subtle natural grain. The audio is crisp and clear too.

There are a few special features included:

– New 2K digital restoration, approved by director Mike Leigh and director of photography Dick Pope, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– New conversation between Leigh and composer Gary Yershon
– New conversation between actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste and film critic Corrina Antrobus
– Audio interview with Leigh, conducted by film critic Michel Ciment in 1996
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark
– New cover by Eric Skillman

It doesn’t look like a lot of material on paper, but the three pieces are all fairly substantial. The audio interview with Leigh, in particular, is fantastic. It’s one-and-a-half hours long so covers a lot of ground, digging into his techniques and breaking down some of his thoughts behind the scenes and structure of Secrets & Lies.

The new interview with Leigh is shorter (around half an hour), so naturally doesn’t get into as much depth as the archive piece, but in speaking to his regular collaborator Gary Yershon, Leigh provides a warm and still illuminating look-back at the production.

Jean-Baptiste’s interview is fairly rich and interesting too, though the interviewer seems a little awkward at times, probably due to the nature of the dual camera Zoom format.

I wasn’t sent a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately. Regardless, I wouldn’t hesitate to heartily recommend this release.

Secrets & Lies - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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