Secrets and Lies (1996)

"Collecting his Palme d'Or in Cannes, Mike Leigh hoped that his success would help people who wanted to make films about 'real life - love and passion and caring and all the things that matter'. Let's hope Hollywood doesn't get hold of that recipe - it sounds like the cue for a thousand remakes of Terms Of Endearment."
It would be easy, but wrong, to describe the plot of “Secrets & Lies” as being about an adopted black woman in London who seeks out her natural birth mother, discovers the woman is white, and arranges to meet her. That would be wrong because it sidesteps the real subject of the film, which is that the mother and her family have been all but destroyed by secrets and lies. The young black woman is the catalyst to change that situation, yes, but her life was fine before the action starts and will continue on an even keel afterward. 

It begins with the black woman, a thirtieths optometrist with the quintessentially British name of Hortense Cumberbatch (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste). After the death of her adoptive mother, she goes to an adoption agency to discover the name of her birth mother, and thinks there must have been a mistake, since the papers indicate her mother was white. There was no mistake.

We meet the mother, named Cynthia, who is played as a fearful, nervous wreck by Brenda Blethyn (who won the best actress award at Cannes for this performance). She lives in an untidy council house with her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who works as a street sweeper, is in a foul mood most of the time, and has a boyfriend whom she has thoroughly cowed. Cynthia mourns the fact that her beloved younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) hasn't called her in more than two years, and blames Maurice's wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), that “toffee-nosed cow,” for the long silence.
The phone rings. It is Hortense. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, dear--there's been some mistake!” says Cynthia. But Hortense persists. Cynthia hangs up.

Leigh, born 1943, made his first feature, "Bleak Moments," in 1971. He made his second, "High Hopes," in 1988. In between, he worked constantly for television and the theater but couldn't get a film financed because the backers wanted to see a script, and of course he didn't have one. When I saw "Bleak Moments," I knew I was watching a masterpiece by a great director and wrote a long review for the Sun-Times. This turned out to be the film's first review; Leigh had been ignored at home in England. In the 17 years between features, he perfected what he instinctively began with: tragicomic portraits of discontented people in trying circumstances, and an embarrassment in social situations that borders on pathology.

The tricky thing with many Leigh films is to process the comedy. In his more upbeat films like "Life Is Sweet" (1991) and "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), the comedy is evident. In his darker films, like this one, "Bleak Moments," "High Hopes" (1988) and of course, "Vera Drake" (2004), the humor is there, but often repressed and insidious, the kind of humor that in a social situation tempts you to laugh when it's inappropriate. One of Leigh's favorite devices is to contrive some sort of party, dinner or gathering in which all the story strands emerge, sometimes with great inconvenience.

Mike Leigh - IMDb

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