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Review: Secrets & Lies

The film is littered with scenes that begin at a fever pitch before descending into a becalmed, meditative state.

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Secrets & Lies
Photo: October Films

When Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia (a sort of kitchen-sink matron by way of Danger Mouse’s Penfold) comes to the realization that Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) truly is the child she gave up for adoption long ago, she dissolves into crying spasms that occasionally could pass for secretive, delirious cackling laughter. Which it very well might be, in a gesture that characterizes life’s sweet and sour strains running in symmetrical tandem. In Mike Leigh’s seminal (read: crossover) familial dramedy, Cynthia Purley is a lonely, working-class single mother whose daughter and brother (at the beck and call of his shrewish, upper-middle-class wife) have both begun to reject, ignore, or lash out against. At the end of her rope, Cynthia’s bleak future picks up when Hortense, who (having recently lost her adoptive mother) is also a lost soul, contacts Cynthia and arranges for the two to meet. Leigh stages their tentative reunion in a static two-shot as mother and daughter sit on the same side of a booth in a grim station teahouse, stripping everything away but Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste, and a volcano of catharsis. Secrets & Lies is littered with scenes that begin at a fever pitch before descending into a becalmed, meditative state as characters on divergent paths settle down into deeper levels of interaction, such as when Hortense visits a frazzled social worker to initiate her search for her birth mother and the woman’s hyperventilatory yes-no questions (“Would you like a Rolo?”) gradually open up to sanguine inquiry. And much like Leigh’s recent Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies itself devotes nearly half its running time to the baptismal qualities of cathartic breakthroughs and the healing capabilities of bittersweet tears, moments that probably wouldn’t play as well as they do if the director didn’t confidently use canny typecasting (Blethyn’s willingness to go straight over the top opens up the door for her characters to look at her weepy tirades with at least a smidge of skepticism; Timothy Spall’s bearish geniality as Cynthia’s brother Maurice allows us to believe that he really would silently enable his family’s discord) as well as an unforced but insistent background of class differences. Ultimately, when Cynthia breaks down in the teahouse, unable to escape the booth as Hortense is blocking her in, she’s crying because her identity as a mother hen who only knows how to nurture has taken its ultimate blow—even her lost daughter has managed to make a financially feasible position for herself (like Maurice, who runs a successful photography business whose clients provide Leigh with all the dramatic nuances and hints of back story that he eschews detailing in the center ring). And she’s simultaneously laughing with joy that her crippling boredom and loneliness has been absolved and that, with her newfound secret, she has found the key to reclaiming her position as the curative matron of her dysfunctional family.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbook, Ron Cook, Lesley Manville, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross, Emma Amos, Hanna Davis Director: Mike Leigh Screenwriter: Mike Leigh Distributor: October Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: R Year: 1996 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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