Written and directed by Mike Leigh, following the death of her adoptive parents, a successful young black optometrist establishes contact with her biological mother – a lonely white factory worker living in poverty in East London. Starring: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Brenda Blethyn, Claire Rushbrook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville and Ron Cook.
Over the years Mike Leigh has crafted a career of making intensely personal and relatable dramas, including Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera Drake, his style has its feet firmly on the ground and takes care to give his characters real qualities and personalities. Secrets & Lies is possibly fighting in contention for the best example of Leigh’s dedication to sincerity in his films, its story of family conflict and facing your regret and mistakes is captured perfectly. As Hortense (Baptiste) grapples with having lost her mother and searching for her biological mother (Blethyn), she finds herself tumbling into a family with a host of its own struggles.
It’s unsurprising that this film’s talent received a host of nominations and awards, including five Oscar-nominations and winning one Golden Globe, two BAFTAs and Best Actress, Jury Prize and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, they leave everything on the table and are emotionally spent. Brenda Blethyn’s performance is emotionally wrought, she so convincingly portrays a woman that has spent so long bottled up that everything comes spilling out anytime she gets the slightest hint of affection. Blethyn captures unbelievably well how much of a wreck her character is, how she’s been constantly made to feel she’s not good enough or that no-one will love her, creating the almost unstable person you witness. However, she’s not the only bright star present, there’s a brilliant supporting cast in the form of Timothy Spall and Marianne Jean Baptiste, Spall presents the stalwart man at the heart of the family, too busy trying to please everyone else to really care for his own needs. Baptiste’s Hortense is a very interesting character, she goes through a lot but she’s extremely resilient, brave and collected, you can see her struggling with the emotions and experiences but she keeps her calm and deals with it. Each of these actors give a compelling, intimate and emotional portrayal that are all extremely captivating to watch.
Leigh’s direction is personal, intimate and down to earth, it may not be an everyday situation but it undoubtedly still retains that genuine feeling of relatability and the less than glamourous realities of life. The writing is fantastic, the story moves slowly but purposefully, you know where it’s headed and it doesn’t disappoint, its climax is packed with emotion, the personal revelations and realisations are enthralling. It brings together a few different perspectives, coming from different backgrounds whether that’s location, wealth or education but in the end gets down to the roots and shows how fundamentally people are surprisingly similar.
Secrets & Lies may be made in and aesthetically utterly 90s but its story is much more timeless, it’s faultlessly human and sincere. Its performances are of an enviably high calibre, that portray a mountain of emotion, bottling it up until it finally erupts which is appropriately British, that can certainly be considered career highlights for Blethyn, Spall and Baptiste. It’s a surprisingly intense drama that’s endearingly compelling, understated and poignant.