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

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