Monday, 18 January 2016

I've Just Seen: Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Director: Mike Leigh

Some film titles are metaphorical, an attempt to sum up the film's themes with poetical imagery. Others are to the point, like Snakes on a Plane, which is exactly what the story is about. Leigh's film is certainly about secrets and lies. It follows a family whose deeply held secrets are revealed when Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is contacted by the daughter she adopted out.

Secrets and Lies is often in the lists of best films of all time. Like Ozu's Tokyo Story, it is a quiet family drama that stands out against the more visually and narratively loud and dynamic films that usually tops those lists. It reminded me most of Asghar Farhadi's films, particularly A Separation. A group of people entangled with one another, with little judgement passed on their characters' actions. We are not asked to judge Cynthia's decision to adopt Hortense out, but simply to look at the results. We can understand Hortense's need to connect, after the death of her adopted mother. We understand the desire of Maurice and Monica's secret about their childlessness; the pain and shame accompanying it makes discussing it too hard.

The risk with this type of story is that it would stray into soap opera territory, but the performances hold back the melodrama, allowing us to see the depth of the ramifications of the revelations. The scene where Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time and talk, a long shot that holds the two together in the frame with both facing the camera is one of the most compelling pieces of cinema you will see. We see each expression on the characters' faces, even the ones the other doesn't see. The two central performances are superb, and the other character are also wonderful.

I am liking Leigh's filmmaking. His unorthodox approach to creating the story would not work for everyone, but it allows the actors to make the characters their own, infusing them with a humanity that cannot but draw us in.


  1. I found this movie surprising. I loved it, and I especially loved Brenda Blethyn. Movies like this is why I did the 1001 Movies list.

    1. It is great. It was one that kept turning up on 'Great/Must see film lists' and I was worried to wouldn''t live up to its reputation. But it has stayed with me, and that is always a good sign.

      You are also spot on with the observation about race in the film. It is barely mentioned, only cropping up at first, then being absorbed into the story. Considering the current discussions about diversity in film, I think screenwriters and filmmakers should look at the way films like Leigh's handle it.