Secrets & Lies (1996)

Directed by Mike Leigh; Written by Mike Leigh

Home is where the hurt is

Families can ruin and redeem us, sometimes all in the same day. The hurt we can inflict and often do upon those closest to us is impossible to map and quantify, and family members who remove themselves for whatever reasons are not absolved of sin. Voids shaped like mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters all fester, and Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh’s harrowing family drama about a young woman who goes looking for her birth mother and finds a family thrashing in pain, is about the power of those voids, whether they be self-sought or forced upon us.  

In the wake of her adoptive mother’s passing, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out in search of her birth mother. Through some civilian sleuthing, she finds a name, and reaches out. Hortense’s search is innocent enough, who can begrudge her, yet we don’t know her exact reasons. Driving by her family’s house, we can only guess at what she expects to find inside. What she does find beyond the door, however, is a broken home. Her mother Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) lives with her twenty-something daughter, and the two are on thin ice. Cutting comments at each other quickly flare into open hostilities, and Cynthia is never far from tears. 

Orbiting all this is her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), who also seems unable to connect with his estranged sister. Dissatisfaction with one’s own life, consequent shame externalized into bitterness. Maurice, a stoic, patient and kind man, himself endures an icy marriage where he and his wife can’t see eye to eye, despite his best efforts. It’s only as Hortense enters Cynthia’s life that the stalemate begins to thaw, and once Cynthia opens up and the pieces start moving, a reckoning is imminent. 

Leigh’s great writing and shattering performances by Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste and Spall means Secrets & Lies is at its strongest when it is at its simplest. The chemistry between Jean-Baptiste’s and Blethyn more than enlivens the long, unbroken exchanges between mother and daughter, as they try to let each other in and understand their new situation, and Blethyn’s performance as a distraught woman full of pain is powerful to the point of indecency. Like a critically wounded animal, Cynthia thrashes in pain, snaps at those who come near, only to later cling on to them for dear life.

A skewering comment on modern propriety that doesn’t feel exclusively British, Secrets & Lies tears at you, make you wince at its callous cruelty only to then to embrace you like only family can. It’s at the top of its class, and one of Leigh’s best.

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