UK / 1995
Director and Writer: Mike Leigh
Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall, Lee Ross, Phyllis Logan
When Mike Leigh collected the Palme d’Or in 1996, his acceptance speech was typically down-to-earth. “All of us went through hell in making this film – and we enjoyed every minute of it,” the 60-year-old Salford-born director declared, and that labour of love is clearly apparent in every minute of Secrets & Lies, a FilmFour-funded film for anyone who’s ever grown up in a family.
It’s a tear-jerker in the best sense of the word – there’s no fake sentiment here, just real emotions and totally believable characters – and is arguably Leigh’s finest movie, surpassing even Naked and High Hopes. “You always live under the threat that you are just making the same film over and over again,” the director notes, “but, having said that, I’m quite comfortable about returning to the general subject matter that I have always done, which is relationships, people, family and all of that.”
Optometrist Hortense’s (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) adoptive mother has just died. The death acts as a spur, forcing Hortense to try and discover the identity of her true parents. She’s surprised to learn that her mother is in fact a white, single woman, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who lives in a terraced house with her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Cynthia is even more surprised to see the daughter she gave up for adoption straight after the birth, while still a teenager. As Hortense and Cynthia get to know each other, Cynthia’s brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), a photographer, plans a 21st birthday party for his niece Roxanne. Making Abigail’s party look event-free by comparison, Roxanne’s birthday will open up lots of family wounds and provide home truths for everyone present.
One of those rare movies that can make you laugh and cry simultaneously, Secrets & Lies is one of the finest British films of the decade. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Film and a Best Actress nod for Brenda “Sweet’art!” Blethyn), it manages to avoid stereotyping its characters and patronising the working class, accusations that have dogged some of Leigh’s previous work.