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Secrets and Lies

SECRETS AND LIES



UK, 1996


Director: Mike Leigh

Production: Film Four (UK), CiBy 2000 (France), Thin Man Films; color (Metrocolor), 35mm; running time: 141 minutes. Released 23 April 1996 (Cannes Film Festival), 24 May 1996, United Kingdom. Filmed on location in London, England. Budget: $4.5 million (US).


Producer: Simon Channing-Williams; screenplay: Mike Leigh; photography: Dick Pope; editor: Jon Gregory; production design: Alison Chitty; original music: Andrew Dickson.


Cast: Timothy Spall (Maurice Purley); Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia Rose Purley); Phyllis Logan (Monica Purley); Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense Cumberbatch); Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne Purley); Elizabeth Berrington (Jane); Michele Austin (Dionne); Lee Ross (Paul).


Awards: Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or (Mike Leigh) and Award for Best Actress (Brenda Blethyn), 1996; Cameraimage Golden Frog Award (Dick Pope), 1996; Los Angeles Film Critics' Association (LAFCA) Awards for Best Actress (Brenda Blethyn), Best Director (Mike Leigh), and Best Picture, 1996; Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Award (Simon Channing-Williams), 1997; British Academy Awards (BAFTA) Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film (Simon Channing-Williams), BAFTA Film Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Brenda Blethyn), and Best Screenplay—Original (Mike Leigh), 1997; Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture—Drama (Brenda Blethyn), 1997; Golden Satellite Award for Best Director of a Motion Picture (Mike Leigh), Best Motion Picture—Drama (Simon Channing-Williams), and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (Brenda Blethyn), 1997; Humanitas Prize (U.S.) in the Feature Film Category (Mike Leigh) 1997; Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film (Mike Leigh), 1997; London Critics' Circle ALFS Awards for British Actress of the Year (Brenda Blethyn), British Director of the Year (Mike Leigh), and British Film of the Year, 1996–97.


Publications


Script:

Leigh, Mike, Secrets and Lies, London, 1997.

Articles:

Cavanagh, David, review in Empire (London), June 1996.

Jones, Alan, review in Film Review (London), June 1996.

Ansen, David, review in Newsweek (New York), 30 September 1996.

Corliss, Richard, "Family Values," in Time (New York), 30 September 1996.

Quart, Leonard, "Raising Questions and Positing Possibilities: an Interview with Mike Leigh," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 4, 1997.


* * *

Best known for his bleak take on life in the suburbs, in Secrets and Lies Mike Leigh surprised many critics with a happy, perhaps rather sentimental ending. Besides its general point about our ability to hide our feelings even from those we love most, the film also confronts head-on an issue that remains pertinent in Britain; namely the extent to which British society is a multiethnic, multicultural one. It tells the story of Hortense, a young, black optometrist looking for her biological parents. To her surprise, her mother turns out to be a poorly educated white factory worker, living with her daughter from another relationship. Unmarried and pregnant at a young age, Cynthia was shamed into giving up her black baby at birth, and at first denies their relationship.

At their first meetings Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense) play the parts of damaged naif and young sophisticate with a rawness that has become a hallmark of Leigh's filmmaking. Constructing the script through extensive improvisation sessions with the cast, he manages to draw from his actors a level of commitment and realism in their roles that is seldom achieved by other directors. In the case of Secrets and Lies, the two female leads were kept apart until it was necessary to film their on-screen meeting, so that the first meeting of the characters was also the first meeting of the actors. Between them the two women produce the most extraordinary moments in the film, such as one awkward eight-minute scene, produced in a single take, in which the pair talk in a restaurant and the bond between them grows despite their different experiences of life.

Secrets and Lies, like Leigh's other films, champions people whose ambitions are simple and honest over those who pretend sophistication and social superiority. Leigh is well known for revealing in his films the dignity and extraordinary resilience of people whose lives seem mundane and uninteresting. Leigh's fascination with the difference between the way things are and the way they appear is embodied in Secrets and Lies in the professions of Cynthia's brother, Maurice, and her newly discovered daughter. As a professional portrait photographer, Maurice's skill with lenses involves creating illusions about his subjects. At one point, for example, he takes a photograph of a woman with a facial disfigurement, cleverly disguising her face to make her look conventionally beautiful. The art of illusion continues in his own life: Maurice and his unhappy, childless wife, Monica, live in a big house, hiding their misery behind expensive furnishings. In contrast, as an optometrist, Hortense is dedicated to improving the vision of her clients, enabling them to see the world more clearly. Through her relationship with Cynthia, Hortense helps the family to see the truth about themselves and each other.

Secrets and Lies is Leigh's fifth feature film, in a career going back to Bleak Moments in 1971, and it is arguably his lightest work for the big screen before Topsy Turvy (2000). The technique of scriptwriting by improvisation seems more accomplished here than in earlier films, and, unusually for a Leigh film, Secrets and Lies was successful at the box office and with critics outside the United Kingdom. While his other films are noted for their dark humour, Secrets and Lies alternates between moments of heart-rending sadness, flamboyant comedy, and situations that had cinema audiences, in Britain at least, squirming in their seats with recognition and embarrassment.

—Chris Routledge

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