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Secrets and Lies explores complexities of emotions

Secrets and Lies

Written and directed by Mike Leigh.

Starring Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Secrets and Lies won the Palme d'Or, the major prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Brenda Blethyn was selected as best actress for her role in Mike Leigh's new film. It was also selected for the prestigious opening night screening of the New York Film Festival. You can go into it knowing all this and still not be prepared for how good it is.

The plot is pretty simple, but it provides a solid foundation for the examination of a set of complex emotions stirred up by a young adopted woman's search for her birth mother and therefore her roots and identity. Leigh, whose previous work includes High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, and Naked, developed this story collaboratively with his actors and artistic crew, as is his practice, and together they have come up with a rich slice of British life in the 1990s.

We first see Hortense at her adoptive mother's funeral as the opening credits roll. She's a young professional of Caribbean background who is in careful control of her emotions. In rapid succession, new scenes introduce us to the other major characters - Monica, a vaguely dissatisfied but prosperous suburban housewife; Maurice, her corpulent photographer husband; and Cynthia and Roxanne, Maurice's sister and niece, who live in a run-down London flat. Brenda Blethyn portrays Cynthia in a performance unlike anything anyone else has done in a movie in a very long time.

Cynthia works in a factory at a machine cutting slots in cardboard boxes, eats and drinks a little too much, and drives her almost-grown daughter to explosive exasperation with her good-intentioned but meddlesome asking of questions. Cynthia has never been married and never talked with Roxanne about how she was born but keeps offering advice to keep Roxanne from getting into a similar predicament.

After the funeral, Hortense starts the hunt for her birth mother, who of course turns out to be Cynthia. This comes as quite a surprise, because Cynthia doesn't at first remember ever having had sex with a black man. The scene in which mother and daughter finally meet, and in which the mother gradually becomes aware that she really is the mother, is amazing. It is done in just two shots, the first setting up the scene in a coffee shop and then next with the camera just placed in front of the two women who sit facing it. Blethyn traverses a range of emotion in this six- or seven-minute sequence that should all by itself garner her every acting award that is available.

But the truly amazing thing about Secrets and Lies is that all the characters, even those who have only one scene, are as well drawn and almost as well acted as Cynthia. Timothy Spall, as Maurice, is a dumpy but decent idealist who manages to be quite a hero when his family reaches its crisis, and Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste bring Monica, Roxanne, and Hortense to throbbing life in their part of the ensemble creation. Also, several bit players add comical moments in brief scenes as the subjects of Maurice's camera.

The camera work is unobtrusively perfect, standing still or gently moving around its subjects in a way that brings the audience into the story. The musical accompaniment is mostly built around a cello line which can be sprightly or melancholy as the situation warrants. The set design also shares in the excellence of the project, efficiently filling in details about each characters' histories and circumstances. Several inanimate objects, like an old hair brush or an artificial Christmas tree, manage to silent speak volumes about this family and how it has come to be what it is.