Every time I think of British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, it brings to mind a host of non-Hollywood films of the 1960s. Back then lovers of film could look forward to the regular appearance of great or near-great cinema from the creative genius of author/directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, and Luis Bunuel. Such artists were at their peak creating films that at their best were of masterpiece quality and at their worst were at least interesting.
Unfortunately those days are gone and most of the films being foisted on us today are of inferior quality and cannot be taken seriously. Director Mike Leigh makes films worth waiting for.
Leigh’s plot focuses on a dysfunctional family. At the beginning of the film a black optometrist, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), buries her adoptive mother. Gradually the desire to discover and meet her birth mother grows in Hortense. Her birth mother is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a fortyish, white single mother of twenty-year-old Roxanne (Claire Rushback), who seems headed straight for the same type of sad life that has been Cynthia’s.
Though Cynthia tries hard, communication between mother and daughter is almost nonexistent. Communication between Cynthia and her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful photographer whom she brought up, also is strained by Maurice’s wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), who has kept contact with Cynthia at a bare minimum.
A secret in the childless marriage of Maurice and Monica also has put a serious strain on their marital relationship. Into Cynthia’s world and eventually into the world of her family comes Hortense, and so the secrets and lies begin to be unveiled.
The film explores with considerable humor, but also with heart-wrenching drama, what Hortense comes to mean for Cynthia, Roxanne, Mike, and Monica. Her presence and her basic goodness seem to call everyone to confront hidden truths about themselves.
Leigh starts his film without a script and gives actors minimal information about the characters they portray. The performers similarly know very little about the other characters as well. Almost none of the performers knew that Hortense was black until she arrived at a birthday party for Roxanne, her half-sister. So Leigh actually duplicates on the set, among the performers, the surprise experienced by the characters when they discover that Hortense is black and the daughter of Cynthia.
Jacques Maritain’s theory of creative intuition is often helpful in analyzing film. Maritain claimed that in producing a work of art the artist needed a creative intuition and the skill to incarnate that intuition in a material work. The way Leigh works with his actors seems to begin with a creative intuition, which they together expand into the film. Because of this way of working, Leigh’s films take much longer to make and demand a lengthy commitment from his performers. That they are more than willing to make this commitment causes me to suspect that Leigh is a unique presence in movie making.
Leigh has confessed that he has been influenced by the work of the late author/director John Cassavetes, who specialized in realistic depictions of ordinary people. When Cassavetes filmed a bar scene, viewers could almost smell the beer. But Cassavetes seemed to lack control and often worked against his own genius by having his scenes run on too long. He may have needed a good editor. Leigh, on the other hand, is in total control and with Secrets & Lies has created a tight, lean, powerful work that never diminishes in intensity.
At the center of Secrets & Lies is an extraordinary performance by Brenda Blethyn. She can have us laughing at human foibles and then wincing at human pain within a span of a few seconds. Hers is a performance to be remembered, not just this year at awards time, but in years to come whenever great acting is discussed.
Philosophers struggle with truth as they try to illuminate and communicate it. Secrets & Lies vividly illustrates that. With the exception of love, nothing in human affairs is more important than truth.