Secrets and lies. Why can't we all share our pain?
When you sit down and watch "Secrets & Lies" from director Mike Leigh, you are not watching a film. No, you are eavesdropping on everyday people naturally going about their everyday business. And this is why the film excels. Though it begins slowly at first, as the disparate plot threads come crashing together in the last act, one cannot help but become emotionally involved with the characters on the screen.
Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is a black optometrist whose adoptive mother has just died. She decides to seek out her birth mother, and this search for the truth introduces her to the strife-ridden family of Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). Oddly enough, Cynthia is white. She is a timid and neurotic 42-year old single mother with a dour daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who can't stand her. Cynthia's younger brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), is a professional photographer with his own studio and his abrasive wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan) goes through tremendous mood swings every twenty-eight days and can't stand Cynthia either.
This is a film that effectively illustrates the rituals and defense mechanisms that are used to hide the unpleasantness of life and make dysfunctional relationships tolerable, thereby maintaining the facade of happiness. Transitional sequences in Maurice's studio serve as a metaphor for this theme. Maurice instructs his subjects to 'put on their best face' for the camera, sometimes with startling contrast to the reality of the situation. Monica is compulsively obsessed with maintaining a clean house-- as she shows her house to guests, she cannot help but make sure every toilet seat is down and that every curtain is tied up properly. Leigh's portrayal of awkward social situations has a refreshing starkness to them and there are two reasons for this. First, he asked his actors to improvise the situations, so that the actors are not merely reciting lines, but they are having conversations. Second, the use of long static shots, without edits or cuts, do not allow the viewer to escape the unpleasantness of tiptoeing through minefields-- no, you are there and you must face the suffocating discomfort.
But you can't be my daughter, dearie! I mean... just look at you!
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is the first meeting between Hortense and Cynthia in a coffee shop. Mike Leigh uses a static head-on two-shot and as the scene unfolds, Hortense and Cynthia do their best to find the words to say to each other and continue the momentum of the conversation. As Cynthia becomes emotionally overwrought by the intensity of the meeting, you are almost unsure of whether to feel pathos for her or to laugh. It is an odd feeling, indicative of the emotional involvement demanded by this film from the audience.
Though the acting is remarkable for all the actors (even the social worker at the beginning of the film shines), Brenda Blethyn carries this movie, with her transformation from tortured nervous wreck to stoic woman. Her performance is something to behold, and she deservedly won Best Actress at 1996's Cannes Film Festival.
Best to tell the truth. That way nobody gets hurt.
This film can justifiably be called one of the best of 1996. What starts as a simple quest by a young woman for her mother culminates into a cathartic process for the entire family, and the tearing down of the secrets and lies that have isolated them for so long.