When is a soap opera not a soap opera? When it's written and directed by a filmmaker as skilled as Mike Leigh and performed by actors as convincing as Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall in Leigh's new film Secrets & Lies.
Few plot lines have been as overworked in recent years as that of the adopted child who seeks out his or her birth parents. The emotional potential of such scenarios has seduced authors of TV series, movies of the week, producers of talk shows, and even the makers of films like last spring's edgy comedy Flirting with Disaster. The media's attention to the concept borders on overkill.
Which makes it all the more surprising that caustic Brit writer-director Mike Leigh -- he of 1994's scabrous Naked -- would build a film around such a played-out narrative gambit. Fans of that earlier Leigh effort, a raving, venomous, in-your-face diatribe against the status quo, will probably be disappointed, or at the very least confused, by the filmmaker's kinder, gentler, blander approach in Secrets & Lies.
Cynthia (the phenomenal Brenda Blethyn weeping, wailing, or sighing through a verge-of-a-breakdown rasp) works in a depressing factory, shares a shabby house in the East End of London with her surly street-sweeping daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), and wastes her days knitting or watching inane TV shows. Cynthia's surroundings contrast sharply with those of her brother Maurice (pudgy scene stealer Timothy Spall) who, with his childless wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), lives far away to the north in a spacious, modern house they purchased and decorated with the proceeds from Maurice's successful portrait and wedding photography business. Monica looks down her nose at Cynthia's lowly socioeconomic status; as a result, Maurice hasn't paid as much attention as he would have liked to the older sister who raised him after their mother died. Cynthia resents the neglect, but not so much that she doesn't welcome Maurice when he finally does show up on her doorstep.
As Cynthia anguishes over the deterioration of her relationship with her daughter, the telephone rings. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a soft-spoken optometrist, is on the line. She claims to be Cynthia's daughter, given up for adoption more than two decades earlier. Oh, and by the way -- she's black. (Cynthia and all the rest of her family are pasty white.) They meet, they cry, they bond. But Cynthia keeps the secret of Hortense's identity to herself. When Maurice and Monica decide to throw a 21st birthday party for Roxanne, Cynthia invites Hortense, and Secrets & Lies becomes a weepy, funny, Nineties update of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
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Somehow Leigh manages to avoid wallowing in the melodramatic possibilities of his material. While neither as dark nor as funny as Naked's, the dialogue sparkles and offers plenty of evidence of Leigh's dry wit. Blethyn's perpetually frazzled Cynthia and Spall's restrained-to-the-bursting-point Maurice complement each other perfectly, and Leigh's cameras miss none of these bravura actors' most subtle nuances.
Leigh's digressions are more powerful than most filmmakers' central stories. During one memorable montage sequence in Maurice's portrait studio, Leigh uses a series of snapshots to brilliantly evoke the personalities of the photographer's subjects. Throughout the film, the director matter-of-factly follows his characters into the water closet, catching them at private moments -- inserting a tampon, sitting on the toilet, drawing a bath. The scrutiny extends to training cameras on characters' faces at their most pained and refusing to look away, boring in on the emotional trauma. It took great filmmaking to overcome Secrets & Lies's pedestrian plot contrivance and pious PC message; fortunately, the excellent cast teams up with Mike Leigh the innovative director to make up for the shortcomings of Mike Leigh the sanctimonious screenwriter.
-- Todd Anthony
Secrets & Lies.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh; with Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Claire Rushbrook, Phyllis Logan, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.