Mike Leigh’s greatest experiment in Secrets & Lies

The acclaimed 1996 film by British filmmaker Mike Leigh which won the Palme d’Or and it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, in a tale of two women brought together through unusual circumstances is incredible to witness.

The film begins at a funeral where we meet Black British optometrist Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) whose adoptive mother has died suddenly. She is inspired by grief to search for her birth mother who is later revealed to be Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a white working-class woman who works and lives in East London.

56Films to Stream: Secrets & Lies (1996) - Cinema Chicago
Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste as mother and daughter (source)

Meanwhile in her own life, Cynthia’s relationship with her other daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) and her middle class business owner brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) remains strained throughout the film.

His fifth film, after 1993’s Naked, Mike Leigh’s most critically successful film certainly does not disappoint. His unorthodox method of writing a basic outline of the story and characters, in which the actors are left to rehearse and improvise extensively to flesh out the characters and its direction of the narrative is certainly a risk, particular as Leigh famously tells each actor a small unbeknownst detail of the story whilst filming, such as Blethyn being unaware that the actress playing Hortense or that her on-screen daughter was black.

This method certainly works highly, as the result is a beautifully raw and captivating lived-in character piece, making each person feel real and believable, almost as we know of the characters personally. The fly-on-the-wall camera work by Bill Pope tracking and capturing the intimate, smallest and (at times) explosive moments, unfolded in its perfectly timed editing by Jon Gregory.

Secrets & Lies – 1996 Leigh - The Cinema Archives
The first meeting of Hortense and Cynthia (source)

Leigh’s cast of actors are the main draw here, with every single character having their fair share of the screen at any given point. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is almost unrecognisable from her days on Without a Trace, in which her performance as Hortense is a quiet revelation of silent pain, grief and sensitivity. Hortense’s want for closure is matched by the actress’ tendency to play it tenderly and close-to-heart, which is contrasted by Blethyn’s show-stopping and rollercoaster emotional turn as Cynthia.

A sad, lonely and vulnerable woman whose life marked by failed relationships and disillusionment towards her distant daughter Roxanne is complicated further when Hortense calls her in search for the truth, Blethyn takes the role of Cynthia fully with everything the actress has and the result is heart-wrenching, visceral and is nothing short of extraordinary. A earlier scene when her on-screen brother played by Timothy Spall, comes to visit her, preludes to its climatic scene. Spall turns in an equally powerful and real performance. The actor, still vastly underrated today, creates a character that feels like a man you’ve met once in your life, and there’s a believable sense of pride, conflict and affection Spall’s Maurice has for the women in his life.

Secrets and Lies (1996) - The barbecue scene - YouTube
The cast of Secrets & Lies are extraordinary, the famous barbecue scene was shot and acted in real time (source)

Movies are almost always about escapism; we want to see a world or a fantasy outside of our circumstances, or at least one miles away from what we’re living through. For some, Secrets & Lies might hit too close to home and that’s probably why the film is so brilliant. Leigh’s experiment here is probably his greatest; his portrayal of a family affected by adoption and how long-lost family brings them closer together, as well as the class system in England particularly within immediate family, the relationships between mothers and daughters, the fights between in-laws (through Cynthia and Phyllis Logan’s Monica), and professional accomplishments and lack thereof, it’s all so beautifully layered and created so poignantly. The film almost feels too hard to critique, you can’t always judge it and compare to anything, but for all its merits, there are few flaws you could easily nitpick.

My only advice is to seek this film if you haven’t already and to see it immediately.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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