Film Scouts Reviews

"Secrets & Lies"

by Karen Jaehne

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Mike Leigh takes us into families we would otherwise never want to know. Somehow he makes them significant and illuminating about our own failures. "Secrets and Lies" sounds dark; it's not. It's very sincere, so sincere that Leigh lets it strike one false moment. At the end, the patriarch of this particular family, Maurice, in his late thirties and tired of binding his wife to his Mum to his 21 year-old dysfunctional sister, denounces the family's modus operandi articulated in the film's title. Maurice then appeals to them for tolerance, to get along. Speaking directly at us, it feels like Mike Leigh's last will and testament. But it lasts only 30 seconds, and then the characters are again being more real than most people. So why complain?

Because Leigh knows better than to let that scrap of pedantry mar his film. Here he gives us Hortense, whose name would have been Elizabeth Pearly, had her mother not given her up for adoption. Hortense is a successful black woman, an optometrist who goes looking for her birth mother. What she finds is the definitive white trash family - only English. Her mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), is a manic-depressive alcoholic who has the vulgar habit of calling everybody "Sweetheart." (It's really grating.) As the movie becomes obsessed with this white family - and we think we're losing track of Hortense - it rather becomes Cynthia's show. She is well-meaning but whining and has alienated her other daughter, Roxanne, who is a street sweeper with the smile of a lemon. She has found a guy and they grope at each other at every opportunity, so her life isn't a total write-off.

Cynthia is sister to Maurice, a photographer who's made something of himself at hack portraiture, and earned enough money to be regularly spent by his middle-class and still climbing wife, Monica. None of these people can stand each other, but Cynthia is particularly needy. She has been abandoned by everybody but Maurice, who in one scene visits her unexpectedly. The lines are so blurry here, that in their body language and behavior, we are set up to expect that he may be the father of Roxanne. Leigh gradually peels back the layer of relationships.

So arrives Hortense, working her way toward the great scene of "Secrets and Lies," when she takes her adoption papers out to prove to Cynthia that she's her bio-Mum. The black woman and the white woman sit side by side in a cafe booth. The place is empty; something significant must happen. It turns out to be Cynthia's facial expression, as she suddenly "remembers" how Hortense was conceived. Watching Brenda Blethyn transition from amnesia to tragedy is worth the whole movie. Truth and consequences sit there cheek-by-jowl, fully grown and capable of enormous recriminations.

At the press conference, a black journalist from London couldn't resist asking both Brenda and Mike Leigh (famous for the way he develops characters through improvisation) how in the world a woman could have forgotten anything as momentous as sleeping with a black man. I report this, because it's the last thing you'd expect in a place so sophisticated about the art of cinema - Not.

This is a film about characters and performances, nuance and small gestures that convince us we are dealing with real life. It only joltingly careens into action in the final sequence, when Cynthia insists on Hortense attending Roxanne's 21st birthday party at Maurice and Monica's. The truth will out: pried open by champagne, Cynthia tells the family that the black woman who seems too classy to work at the factory with her is in fact her own daughter - and everyone else's sister or in-law. It's what we've been waiting for. Yet, it feels like it ought to be at the beginning of the film. All the rest suddenly collapses into backstory.

Leigh has left us wanting more. Not bad for a guy making a film about people's insecurity about identity, about how much courage it takes to try to pursue an identity, especially when it starts appearing to be exactly the identity you don't want. Hortense found her mother, all right, and against all odds Leigh convinces us that it's good for everybody.

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