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  Secrets & Lies The Mother Of All Issues
Year: 1996
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Brenda Blethyn, Claire Rushbrook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Emma Amos
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 1 vote)
Review: Maurice (Timothy Spall) is a photographer, he does it all, weddings, graduations, any special occasion, really, and he likes people so is very good at getting the best out of them. However, his family life is not what it could be, through no fault of his own, it's just that while he gets on with his sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and niece Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), and is as happily married to his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) as he can be, there are rifts between each of them which he feels he will never heal. Meanwhile, in another part of London, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) has recently lost her mother, except she was not her birth mother, and she cannot help but wonder...

Certainly as far as the cinema went, Secrets & Lies was considered Mike Leigh's masterpiece, and even including his stage and television efforts, it was quite an achievement, an intimate tale of a family that was dysfunctional in a way that many could identify with in spirit, if not in the facts and details. It was multi-award nominated, but failed to be garlanded as much as perhaps it should, since by this point Leigh was in danger of being taken for granted; now, seeing as how the latter stages of his career were more divisive, it can be seen as signalling an end of a golden period of a remarkable career - he still had Topsy-Turvy to come, and Happy-Go-Lucky had its fans, but he was becoming a more specialised taste.

Nevertheless, for all the misgivings he may elicit in many audiences latterly, if you wanted to understand why he remains so respected you just had to watch this piece and appreciate the intricately devised interplay throughout a drama that had huge sympathy for all its characters. Leigh's technique was well known by this stage, in that he formulated a framework for his actors to build their roles on, and though he would guide their performances towards certain plot points, they were free to interact as they saw fit, no matter that you would guess their director had a destination in mind that they moved towards along their meticulously specific pathways.

It was renowned as one of the most satisfying experiences a performer could enjoy. There were threats that those performers could verge too close to caricature, and Blethyn could be guilty of that, it was true, but her Cynthia was intended to be hard work. As a middle-aged woman whose early life choices (some of which were not exactly choices) has shaped her as a desperately lonely singleton who tries her best to be close to her daughter, but is so offputting she self-sabotages at every opportunity. The more we discover about her background the more we understand her tragedy, and see that when Hortense reaches out to her, this may be a lifeline that her brother is embarrassed to provide himself, dissuaded by Monica's dislike of Cynthia.

Partly born out of class differences, but also a sense that she has squandered her chances at motherhood in a manner that Monica is revolted by considering her own personal problems. A feeling that these people were not quite in control of their lives, never mind other folks' lives, was here throughout, starting with what happened back in the nineteen-sixties when Cynthia, as a teenage single mother of a mixed-race baby was forced to give her up for adoption, a scandal in itself for being the prevalent way things were done back then. Hortense does get her life on track and has become a successful professional in a manner that she never would had she stayed with her birth mother - Roxanne is a street sweeper - thus underlining the theme of how even a right turn in your circumstances at any age can have enormous consequences.

But the small decisions do that too - there was a lot of sheer luck to be taken into account if you wanted to apply its insights into any life around you, including your own. An aside sees the man (Ron Cook) Maurice bought his business from return and attempt to beg for a job in the most belligerent fashion: he had emigrated to seek his fortune, and it has gone badly wrong. That you never know when you're making a good decision or a bad one, or even if they are being made for you, was what led to the agony the characters have to face up to, and though it could have been soap opera writ large, Secrets & Lies ended up being powerful simply by trying to reassure us that finally, you can reach acceptance, you just have to keep going and keep hope in your heart; maybe it will work out and maybe it won't. It was a rare example of a film where everyone was at more than their best, they attained brilliance, where you could read between the lines as much as you could take in what was spoken out loud, and that made it riveting. That their pain was so unnecessary in the first place was all the more moving. Music by Andrew Dickson.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these features:

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
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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