Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Secrets and Lies” (1996)

I have to start by saying that this is the first Mike Leigh film that I’ve actually seen, despite obviously knowing his reputation for making well-written films that feature excellent performances. I’m not exactly sure what drove me to start with this particular film; I knew what the main story was about and I was definitely interested to see how it would play out.

Secrets and Lies is about optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who, after the death of her stepmother, sets out to find her birth mother. Eventually, she finds that her real mother is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white, working-class woman with a 21 year old daughter, with whom she has a tumultuous relationship. Whilst initially disbelieving that Hortense could be her daughter, given the obvious physical differences, she eventually accepts the truth and the two soon become very close. Ultimately, all is revealed at a barbecue at Cynthia’s brother’s house and all of the everyone’s “secrets and lies” are thrown out into the open.

What’s remarkable about this film is how incredibly genuine, believable and realistic it all is; there is absolutely no doubt that these are real people rather than basic characters and this is due to the confident writing and perfect performances. Writer/director Mike Leigh also allowed his ensemble cast to improvise, telling each one of the actors exactly what their characters know at the beginning of each scene and letting them develop their characters naturally. This was clearly a smart move as the dialogue is perfectly natural and as close to real life as you could ever hope to get.

The stand out scene of the film has to be the cafe sequence where Cynthia finally realises that Hortense really is her daughter. Keeping the action on a single shot, all our attention is focused on these two characters, almost as if we are in the scene ourselves, listening in on their conversation. A similar technique is used during the barbecue; Leigh uses a single shot and, as if we were actually there, our attention darts back and forth between the different characters.

I also enjoyed the photography montages, watching a wide variety of people (and pets!) posing to have their pictures taken. Initially funny and a tad wacky, we also see couples with a strained, troubled relationship, mirroring the events of the main story and adding a certain uncomfortable, tense atmosphere.

My only real problem with the film is the music; with a cello-heavy score, there is a constant dirge throughout the whole film. I mean, this may be kitchen sink drama territory, but still!

Perfectly pitched performances alongside masterful writing and directing, Secrets and Lies is engaging, powerful and more realistic than real life. Nice to meet you, Mr. Leigh.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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