Fox // 1996 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // April 5th, 2005
"Secrets and lies! We're all in pain. Why can't we share our pain?" -- Maurice Purley
Mike Leigh's 1996 film Secrets & Lies has finally been released on DVD, just in time to capitalize on the 2005 Oscar publicity surrounding his most recent movie, Vera Drake. Both films were justly nominated for best director and best screenplay, and both show off the power of this unconventional director.
Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn, Lovely and Amazing) is a barely-held-together London factory worker who lives with her adult daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrooke), a street sweeper, in the same rented home she grew up in. She has a fragile relationship with her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall, Immortality), whom she helped raise after their mother's death. But his success as a photographer and business owner, plus his status-conscious wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), have put a barrier between him and his sister.
Roxanne doesn't know who her father is, and is unaware that Cynthia had another child, whom she gave up for adoption when she was 16. This child turns out to be Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, A Murder of Crows), an elegant black optometrist who seeks Cynthia after the death of her adoptive mother. After some initial confusion and rejection, Cynthia and Hortense discover their natural bond and attempt to get to know each other.
Roxanne's approaching 21st birthday party is the impetus to bring all the characters together for the revelations of their secrets and lies that will either destroy or rebuild their relationships.
These characters are people we could know -- at least in a "there but for the grace of god..." kind of way -- and director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) is brilliant at letting us feel like we're privileged to hang out with them for a couple of hours. The realism stems partly from the natural acting style and partly from an improvised script, with Leigh instructing his actors on their characters and storyline and collaborating with them to improvise dialogue.
Secrets & Lies is very much a slice of life movie, as we eavesdrop on scenes that add color to the characters' lives but don't drive the plot forward. We even follow some of them into the bathroom, in compact scenes that reveal much about the characters' hidden emotions. Leigh excels at tiny, telling details. A montage Maurice's photo shoots demonstrate this talent, with vignettes of a husband and wife who show off her wedding ring while treating each other with disdain, or the beautiful but horribly scarred woman whose brittle haughtiness hides a barely suppressed rage. The entire movie is full of telling moments between the major characters, with each conversation and interaction fraught with potential pitfalls, sometimes culminating in humor, sometimes in the daily hurts that mark human relationships.
It's not hard to see why Maurice avoids Cynthia, or why Cynthia drives Roxanne crazy. As played by Brenda Blethyn, she is a deeply flawed, deeply annoying woman who is nonetheless deeply sympathetic. Her vulnerability is palpable. She acts like a skittish fawn when confronted by the voice of her long-lost daughter, and her despair over her narrow life and her inability to connect with the people she loves drives her to drink and talk more than she should. But her self-awareness of her flaws make them all the more painful for her and for the audience in our sympathy. Cynthia is desperate to love and be loved, but hasn't developed the resources to get it right.
Her relationship with Roxanne is toxic; they bring out the worst in each other. Roxanne may be petulant, but we see enough to realize that Cynthia's overbearing but ineffectual efforts to love and protect would not be easy to grow up with or to live with as an adult. Cynthia's developing relationship with Hortense offers a direct contrast, with Hortense bringing out the best in her, partly through role-reversal -- the long-lost daughter takes care of her newly discovered birth mother in small ways, and accepts her unconditionally. Hortense also benefits from the relationship. She is reticent compared to the other characters, who seem to spew out every thought except their festering secrets, but Cynthia's benevolent tactlessness helps draw her out.
One of the depressing, but accurate, truths of this movie is that we're at our most horrible with the people we love. Though Cynthia and Hortense are moving towards a loving relationship, meeting as strangers makes it easier for them to proceed without the most profound ability to hurt and be hurt.
Similar conversations with both daughters bring the contrast to life. When Cynthia pleads once again for Roxanne to bring her boyfriend home so she can meet him, it devolves into a belated discussion about birth control with the reluctant Roxanne, and then a harangue about unwanted pregnancy, which can't help but rankle not only because of its alcohol-fueled timing and heavy-handedness, but because Roxanne herself was the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Later, when Cynthia asks Hortense whether she has a boyfriend (no) and what method of birth control she uses when she does (condoms), the conversation is direct and non-judgmental.
The complex characters in Secrets & Lies surpass our expectations at every turn. Even the issue of race -- the confusion Hortense experiences when discovering her birth mother is white, and Cynthia's initial insistence that she never slept with a black man -- fades as it becomes apparent that it's not a significant issue for the characters. Another example is Monica, who could easily be simply the shrewish wife who wants to cut ties to Maurice's lower-class and hapless sister, but her disdain for Cynthia is rooted in many things, a profound envy among them. Loving but helpless Maurice, caught between the women he loves, turns out to have more strength than we -- or the women themselves -- suspected.
The working-class roots of the film are translated into its gray and gritty visual style, with graininess and faded colors that don't detract from a fine DVD transfer (marred only by occasional edge enhancement). The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound does a reasonable job with dialogue, and in a movie where conversation conveys the action, that's enough. With no extras, though, the point that Fox did not put much work into this release is underscored.
Fox has given us the first Region 1 DVD release of Secrets & Lies, and while there are no extras, the inexpensive suggested retail price reflects its no-frills presentation. This exceptional movie deserves more, but given the absence of options, I don't hesitate to recommend a purchase. I saw it first in 1996 and again on video years later, and still found much more to explore on this DVD viewing. Secrets & Lies is rich and profound, but never humorless or boring.
Everyone involved are acquitted...except Fox, who are sentenced to find an excuse to come up with a future special edition version with some well-deserved extras.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R