Hard truths and deep emotion combine with Mike Leigh’s warmth and humanism in this powerful, spectacular film
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Lee Ross (Paul), Lesley Manville (Social worker), Ron Cook (Stuart), Emma Amos (Scarred girl)
“Secrets and lies. We’re all in pain! Why can’t we share our pain?”. These words come from family photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall), fighting a losing battle against his own pain while doing his best to hold his family together. It’s the mission statement for one of Mike Leigh’s most powerful films, a heart-rending drama that left me tearful. This is as gut-wrenching as Leigh can get, with actors delivering performances that feel ripped from their souls. Despite this, it gets me because this is a hopeful film about the power of love, whose anguish builds from watching what could (and should) be a loving family, failing (almost until the end) to share pain long suppressed due to shame.
That family are the Purley’s. Maurice is a successful photographer with a charming house in suburbia, dotingly maintained by his perfectionist wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Sister Cynthia, who effectively raised Maurice, remains a working-class single-Mum to 21-year-old Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). This class difference fuels resentments between Cynthia and Monica.
Unspoken secrets abound. But our first introduction is middle-class black optometrist played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hortense Cumberbatch. (A running joke in the film is everyone’s unfamiliarity with this surname – how times change!). Hortense was adopted and now, with both her parents dead, wants to make contact with her birth mother. That birth mother – to her shock – is Cynthia, who gave birth to Hortense at 15. The relationship between Hortense and Cynthia becomes a catalyst for searing revelations, and shattering of emotional barriers, in the Purley family.
Leigh’s film is a triumph of his quiet, observational, unobtrusive directorial style, grounded on a deep and profound understanding of people and their strengths and foibles. As with his earlier films, the characters were developed after an intensive rehearsal process, with the actors given information only when their characters were. Secrets and Lies takes his approach to everyday life to its zenith, finding levels of tragedy (and warmth) in the simple pain of carrying on that other dramas can only dream of.
It is about how hopes can be both sustaining and damaging. A refrain heard in the movie is “You can’t miss what you’ve never had”. Au contrarie. The film is stuffed with people deep in grief about, or desperate to find, things they’ve never had. Hortense wants to discover where she came from. Cynthia’s life is one of lonely disappointment, resenting the domestic contentment of Maurice and Monica. Maurice and Monica are anguished by their childless marriage, Monica resenting Cynthia for having had the child she longs for. Roxanne wants a stable family, resenting her mother’s clumsy confirmation seemingly everyday that her birth was an accident (even if not a regretted one).
But, in typical British style, no one can talk about any of this. Instead, the Purleys cling to impressions of what the other family members are like. Monica sees Cynthia as a hopeless deadbeat, who can’t care for her children. Cynthia sees Monica as a snob, who stopped Maurice having a child. Roxanne sees Cynthia as constantly disappointed in her, Cynthia sees her as difficult, rebellious young woman unable to look after herself. And Maurice attempts to hold all this together, positioning himself as a jovial head-of-the-family, and whacking down any pain of his own.
Hortense, by comparison, is a model of well-adjusted upbringing. Leigh’s film doesn’t let us see much of her family – we witness her (non-adopted) siblings feuding over an inheritance – but the film constantly enforces the love she got from her parents, from the film’s beautifully staged opening at her mother’s funeral to her smiling reminiscences of parents (flaws and all) who did their best, were honest with her and taught her she was loved. Seen in conversation with her best friend Dionne (a neat single scene cameo by Michele Austin), she’s humane, warm and self-aware enough about her hopes and failings.
But she also has the fixated determination of the middle-classes – the sort of go-getting attitude completely alien to Cynthia, to whom events always happen rather than being something she starts. She disregards the advice of a social worker (a wonderful cameo of rushed professionalism, tinged with just enough genuine care by Lesley Manville) to make contact through social services and instead takes the plunge to contact Cynthia herself.
One of Secrets and Lies many strengths is its open-eyed honesty about the joy and pain of adoption. Hortense, as noted, found a loving family through adoption. But still she wants to know, why did her mother not even hold her when she was born? The answer isn’t simple, as Cynthia’s devastated reaction to the question shows: because if she held her, she would never have let go. This is the emotional centre-piece of an emotionally devastating but deeply uplifting scene at the centre of the movie as Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time.
Shot in a café in a single near-seven-minute uninterrupted take with a stationary camera (a stylistic choice Leigh repeats at a family BBQ later in the film, as we wait for inevitable secrets to flood out), this is an acting masterpiece. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste (both Oscar-nominated) give extraordinary performances throughout, but achieve the sublime here. Blethyn delivers nearly every line as if it was being pulled out of her soul by pliers, at points convulsed with teary shame unable to look Hortense in the eye: Jean-Baptiste, so assured throughout, is quiet, almost abashed but clinging to a professionalism to help resolve facing emotion head-on (right down to sitting next to Cynthia rather than opposite her).
Emotionally truthful performances run throughout. Spall is superb as a man who is no pushover – he quietly but determinedly shrugs off a drunken former mentor (a neat cameo from Ron Cook) asking to be given a chance – but who will bend over backwards to accommodate those he loves. Logan battens down hysterical guilt and grief under a house-proud fussiness. Rushbrook is a cauldron of resentments under a surly exterior. The relationship between Cynthia and Hortense – beautifully played by both actresses – quickly becomes one of genuine affection, for all their vast differences.
The film builds towards a celebratory BBQ for Roxanne’s birthday – which Cynthia brings Hortense to, claiming her as work friend. Leigh uses a long take as the family eats (we, the audience, constantly awaiting the emotional walls to break) before a devastating sequence as one after another family secrets come tumbling out, shattering emotional reserves, characters clinging to each other for comfort in floods of repressed tears, stunned onlookers open-mouthed.
It’s a scene of huge emotional impact – I cried – as regrets, loss and resentments built from years of understanding tumble out. But it’s hopeful, uplifting almost, because this is not the end. It’s a start. It’s very clear that, having finally said what they are really feeling, the extended family can move in a way that was impossible at the start. That they are closer now than ever. Hortense is the agent of positivity, and Leigh’s film closes with a quiet scene with Roxanne that suggests they have every chance of forming a warm, genuine, relationship.
Secrets and Lies is a superb film, a masterclass observation and domestic near-tragedy, powered by extraordinary performances of lived-in reality from the actors, that carries emotional strength but also has a rich vein of hope running through it. It is one of Leigh’s masterpieces.