Secrets and Lies, 1996

Secrets and Lies is a funny, compelling, and affectionate story of family and reconciliation. At the heart of the film is the profoundly simple idea: that human suffering is universal, and that the only comfort lies in our ability to share the pain with those we love. The story opens with Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a well-educated optometrist, at her mother’s funeral. Perhaps, as a reaction to the loss of her remaining parent, or simply out of curiosity, she decides to find her biological mother. We then meet Maurice (Timothy Spall), a married, but childless, studio photographer, and his older sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a middle-aged single mother, who works in a factory (having the unenviable task of punching slits for cardboard boxes). As with any family, personal circumstances, irritations, and resentment (and perhaps even envy) have tended to separate the two siblings who were once close. Meanwhile, Hortense’s search has led her to Cynthia. It is the development of their relationship, and the profound catalytic effect that Hortense has on Cynthia and the rest of her family, that is utterly wonderful and fascinating to watch. As with any Mike Leigh film, the performances of the actors are unparalleled. Note the exquisite subtlety of Hortense’s poignant reaction as she reads through her adoption files – the missing pieces of her life – at the social worker’s office. Another is Cynthia’s indescribable comic expression at the moment of realization that Hortense is, indeed, the daughter she had given up for adoption. Secrets and Lies is a truly remarkable achievement – a pensive, highly entertaining film that confronts difficult issues with humor and pathos.

Mike Leigh uses a narrative approach to filmmaking, concentrating on exhaustive improvisational character development, rather than symbolic imagery. As a result, there are some aspects of the dialogue that are left open-ended and unresolved: the identity of Hortense’s father, the conversation between Hortense and Yolanda about a relationship between their parents, Roxanne’s past problems (that led her to the streets). This results in a story that is highly realistic, contemporary, and accessible. In a sense, Leigh is very similar to Maurice: he chronicles the visual imagery of his subjects in a manner that reflects them honestly, but with compassion. Secrets and Lies is a tender, sensitively handled film about the complexity of familial relationships.

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