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 -
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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