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Secrets And Lies (1995, Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall)

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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.

production details
UK | 142 minutes | 1996
Writer and Director: Mike Leigh

cast
Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia Rose Purley
Timothy Spall as Maurice Purley
Claire Rushbrook as Roxanne Purley
Lee Ross as Paul
Elizabeth Berrington as Jane
Michele Austin as Dionne
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense Cumberbatch
Anthony O’Donnell as Uneasy Man
Janice Acquah as Junior Optician
Phyllis Logan as Monica Purley
Stephen Churchett as Men in Suits
Ron Cook as Stuart
Lesley Manville as The Social Worker
Phil Davis as Man in suit
Jonny Coyne as Fiance
Ruth Sheen as Laughing Woman
Frances Ruffelle as Young mother
Alison Steadman as Woman with dog
Peter Wight as Father in family group
Annie Hayes as Mother in family group
Sheila Kelley as Fertile Mother
Trevor Laird as Hortense’s Brother
Brian Bovell as Hortense’s Brother
Emma Amos as Girl with scar
Clare Perkins as Hortense’s Sister in Law
Elias Perkins McCook as Hortense’s Nephew
Jane Mitchell as Senior Optician (as June Mitchell)
Keylee Jade Flanders as Girl in Opticians (as Keeley Flanders)
Hannah Davis as First Bride
Terence Harvey as First Bride’s Father
Kate O’Malley as Second Bride
Joe Tucker as Groom
Richard Syms as Vicar
Grant Masters as Best Man
Jean Ainslie as Grandmother
Lucy Sheen as Nurse
Nitin Ganatra as Potential Suitor
Metin Marlow as Conjuror
Su Elliott as Raunchy woman
Amanda Crossley as Raunchy woman
Di Sherlock as Raunchy woman
David Neilson as Men in suits
Peter Waddington as Men in suits
Peter Stockbridge as Men in suits
Rachel Lewis as Graduate
Paul Trussell as Grinning Husband
Denise Orita as Uneasy woman
Margery Withers as Elderly Lady
Gordon Winter as Laughing man
Theresa Watson as Daughter
Gary McDonald as Boxer
Liz Smith as Woman with cat
Angela Curran as Little Boy’s Mother
Linda Beckett as Pin Up Housewife
Wendy Nottingham as Glum woman
Mia Soteriou as Fiancee