New on DVD: Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” – The Criterion Collection

The winner of the Palme d’Or award at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies is an incredible family drama that seeps with raw emotion from start to finish. Set in London, the film centers around Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a Black adopted child who, after her foster mother dies, goes on search to find her biological mother. With help from the government, she discovers that her mother is named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and is white. While Cynthia is initially confused about the entire situation, and declines to meet Hortense, the two finally meet each other, and from there, quickly build a relationship.

The film not only explores this plotline, but focuses in on Cynthia’s relationship with the rest of her family as well – including with her nearly 21-year-old daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) and Maurice’s wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), all of whom she has rocky relationships with, often ending in fights. By exploring and juxtaposing Roxanne’s secret relationship with Hortense with all of her other relationships, Leigh captures a complete picture of the ups and downs of a family suffering from severe emotional crises.

At 142 minutes, Secrets & Lies is a long film. The first hour in particular, which bounces back and forth between building the relationships between Cynthia and her family and Hortense’s search for Cynthia, moves incredibly slowly. It’s sometimes confusing to understand why certain things are happening on-screen, especially scenes that feel somewhat shoehorned in and in no way relevant to the film’s main plot. It is in the second half of the film, with the divergence of Cynthia’s relationships with her two daughters occurs, is when Leigh’s intentions become clear. The message of the film is solidified in a final gathering scene for Roxanne’s 21st birthday, with a sharp script and accompanying performances that remain with the viewer.

The incredible resonance of Secrets & Lies is not only a testament to Leigh’s nuanced direction and well-penned script, but a testament to the film’s award-worthy performances as well. The entire ensemble is fantastic, and each actor truly bounces off of the others’ performances. The powerhouse performance from Blethyn as Cynthia–which went on to gain the actress both a BAFTA award and an Academy Award nomination–is a tour de force. Right from the moment her character is introduced, it becomes clear that Blethyn is the actress who makes the movie, and without her presence, the film would definitely still have an impact, but not as big of one.

The Criterion Collection edition of the film may not have as many supplements as films in the Collection usually do, but it makes up for this lack with the fantastic 2K restoration, fit to the modern day viewing experience. For people who want to learn more about the film, the most notable featurettes are two new conversations, one between director Leigh and the film’s composer, Gary Yershon, and another between Jean-Baptiste and critic Corrina Antrobus.

Source: Secrets & Lies

Building a Masterpiece

Topsy Turvy

Remember live performance? The story of the making of The Mikado illuminates the magic of theater in the delightful Topsy-Turvy.

A bluff, domineering Victorian fellow pronounces the words in a humorless, matter-of-fact tone, as though dictating a legal filing: “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan.” The moment marks a painfully achieved breakthrough halfway through Mike Leigh’s delightful 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, the story of a project — The Mikado — that was not merely a hit but earned a place among the minuscule proportion of hits that endured across the centuries. One hundred and thirty-five years after its debut, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most beloved collaboration, the one that begins with those gentlemen of Japan introducing themselves, remains a very model of the modern musical theater and is still widely performed today.

Or it would be, if there were much performing going on in the Anglosphere, which is why Topsy-Turvy makes for especially poignant viewing today. (You can watch it free, with minimal commercial interruption, on NBC’s new streaming service Peacock.)

The author of The Mikado’s libretto, William Schwenck Gilbert — incomparably portrayed by the brilliant character actor Jim Broadbent in his greatest performance — is, at the outset of the movie, huffing about a lightly damning review of his latest “opera” (today usually called an “operetta”), Princess Ida, which was later more or less forgotten. The reviewer notes that Princess Ida is pleasant enough but “words and music alike reveal symptoms of fatigue in their respective composer and author.” The critic correctly identifies a rut of predictability into which Gilbert has fallen — his topsy-turvy reliance on absurdly contrived, high-concept twists. Later in the film, when Gilbert explains to his partner, composer Arthur Sullivan (a recessive Allan Corduner) that the premise for his next work is a magic potion that transforms the person who takes it into whoever he or she is pretending to be, Sullivan scoffs, “You and your world of Topsy-Turvydom! In 1881 it was a magic coin. And before that, it was a magic lozenge. And in 1877 it was an elixir.” Pause. Gilbert: “In this instance, it is a magic potion.”

Gilbert is a genius who is nevertheless turning into a bit of a hack, and needs a genuinely fresh idea, which he discovers at an exhibition of Japanese culture in London where he purchases a ceremonial sword that, when he displays it in his home, later falls off a wall and unleashes his creativity. The Mikado would prove to be not only a career tonic, but the epitome of the Gilbert and Sullivan style, which anticipated today’s Broadway musical.

Topsy-Turvy, which cost an enormous sum by Leigh’s standards — all of $20 million, or approximately the latte budget for a superhero movie — was a financial flop and got no major Oscar nominations except for Best Original Screenplay. What might have kept the film from achieving the stature it deserved is Leigh’s rigorous refusal to flatter the audience by shaping his material into any kind of argument. Though Leigh is an ardent left-winger, the film rejects all opportunities to indulge in propaganda or grandstanding. It doesn’t castigate the Victorians for their racism, sexism, classism, or any other ism that causes disgust in our age. Nor did Leigh locate among the Victorians some previously hidden source of values we today hold dear. Even a reference to abortion comes free of any suggestion of what we should think about it. Today’s concerns hardly enter the picture at all; Leigh opts instead to re-create the period as best he can (though he embellishes the record: The oft-told story of the operetta’s genesis in the Japanese exhibition is false). Only one, unfortunate line of dialogue is clearly thrown in from the vantage point of the late 20th century — an unlikely reference to Jennie Churchill’s headstrong son Winston, then an underachieving ten-year-old. [ . . . ]

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Alison Steadman: ‘I never thought I would live in such strange and scary times’

The actor is back from lockdown with two new dramas. She talks about her 50-year career, Boris Johnson and the joy of miaowing at John Cleese, while James Corden, Julia Davis and Mike Leigh pay tribute

It took less than a week of lockdown for Alison Steadman to start making puppets. Supplies weren’t a problem; this is a woman so anti-waste she thinks supermarkets should charge a fiver for plastic bags and donates her old hair to the birds. “It’s very good for nests; it’s soft and it complements the grass and sticks.”

So, come late March, she decided to knock together a Mr Punch to entertain her grandson on FaceTime. “I’d got all the stuff: toilet roll holder, newspaper, flour, plasticine, Christmas decorations, an old cushion.

“I love Punch and Judy. When I was a child, we’d sometimes go shopping in Liverpool city centre and my treat, if I behaved, was to watch it outside St George’s Hall. People say: ‘Oh, but he used to beat his wife with a stick.’ But as a kid you don’t know that. It’s just fun.”

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Bill Antoniou takes a look at the films of British master filmmaker Mike Leigh

Whenever people tell me that Mike Leigh is one of their favourite filmmakers, I’m always surprised to hear it.  Even though he’s also one of mine, I forget to think of him as an actual filmmaker.

His brilliant work is derived from his achievements in theatre and it bears those origins on screen, though I don’t mean that as criticism. He returns to some character archetypes frequently (the soulful homeless man, the hopelessly chirpy working-class woman) and the conflicts he puts his characters through feel like the stuff of stage drama. He makes them relevant in cinema from the beginning, then as he goes along, directing more films and making his multi-levelled narratives feel more cinematic. (Meantime just feels like watching people, while Another Year plays almost like a thriller.)

A common mistake people make about Leigh’s work is saying that it is improvised. It’s absolutely not, but is rather a script created from work that he does with his actors, creating characters from birth to death and putting them in situations together in which their improvised interactions eventually result in a finished work. In the eighties, he revolutionized the kitchen-sink melodrama. These films were celebrated for nailing the anxieties of the less fortunate under Thatcher’s conservative reign. In the nineties, he applied his observations of simple lives in the less glamorous parts of London to high concept dramas (and in the case of his Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies, created his masterpiece). Continue reading

Left-wing British film and television producer Tony Garnett dead at 83

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

The highly respected film and television producer, writer and director Tony Garnett died on January 12 after a short illness, aged 83.

Garnett was born Anthony Edward Lewis on April 3, 1936, into a working-class family in Birmingham. His mother died when he was just five years old, of septicaemia two days after a backstreet abortion during the Second World War. His father, a munitions worker, committed suicide 19 days later.

Tony Garnett
Tony Garnett

Garnett’s career spanned 50 years, but he is identified above all with one of the most significant and creative periods in the history of television drama in the UK.

Originally an actor, he appeared in television’s The Boys (1962) and Z Cars (1962) and played several small parts in An Age of Kings (1960), the BBC’s influential production of Shakespeare’s history plays.

He moved behind the camera when he was hired as an assistant story editor at the BBC working on The Wednesday Play, which ran from October 1964 to May 1970 and aired more than 170 plays.

This famed series, which addressed social issues before an audience of millions, included the likes of Up the Junction (1965, about abortion), Cathy Come Home (1966, about homelessness), The Lump (1967, about casualised labour in the building industry), In Two Minds (1971, about mental illness as a social problem) and The Big Flame (1969, about a workers’ revolt on the docks), all produced by Garnett. During this period he began long associations with writer Jim Allen, dramatist David Mercer and, most notably, director Ken Loach.

His producing credits include Loach’s Kes (1969), After a Lifetime (1971), Family Life (1971—the film version of In Two Minds), Days of Hope (1975), The Price of Coal (1977) and Black Jack (1978), as well as Roy Battersby’s The Body (1970), Mike Leigh’s Hard Labour (1973), Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy (1985), Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing (1996).

Garnett came into contact with Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League, the British Trotskyists, in the late 1960s. Although he never joined the Trotskyist movement, he was instrumental in organising discussions among actors, writers and directors, including Loach, Mercer, Roy Battersby and Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, that led to important gains within these circles. Playwright Trevor Griffiths depicted those meetings in his play, The Party (1973).

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