By Stephanie Zacharek
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The emotion in a Mike Leigh film is as plain as dirt and as valuable as gold. This most gifted of all British moviemakers may, in fact, be a kind of miracle worker: He takes the stuff of ordinary working- and middle-class life--trying and failing, the terrors of aging, small victory and numbing regret, family bonds broken by fear and human frailty--and turns them into the most important things in the world, tinged by wit and tenderness. Ten minutes or so into one of Leigh's unadorned but seductive works of art, we realize anew that these are the important things. For everyone, they are the substance of existence.
Why is it that so many other filmmakers cannot seem to point them out as clearly or fluently?
Secrets & Lies has a vaguely Bergmanesque title and the Palme d'Or from Cannes in its trophy case, but it's just as user-friendly, unexpectedly funny and deceptively down-home as Leigh films like Life Is Sweet and Naked. Once again, he has collaborated with a stunning cast in his famous improvisational method to show us an untidy, unhappy family plagued by repression and evasion but finally buoyed up by a sweet striving that the characters and the audience discover, like grace or magic, only in the denouement.
The unhinged Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a whimpering mess of a woman who works in a box factory and lives with her scornful, fatherless daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), in a tatty East London house. Soured by resentment, they feed on each other, but the spirit is seeping out of them.
Off in a flowery suburb, Cynthia's plump, mild-mannered brother Maurice (Timothy Spall, late of Life Is Sweet) endures another hell. By day he photographs melancholy weddings, slightly out-of-kilter families and babies. He coaxes smiles out of boxers posing in their trunks for publicity shots and, in another of those arresting scenes Leigh handles so naturally, Maurice quietly asks a lovely young woman to now turn her opposite profile to the camera, revealing a face that has recently gone through a car windshield, a future that's shattered.
At home, Maurice's life is no less unsettling. His distant wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), childless and angry, overdecorates their prim new house in the absence of any other pleasure, then snipes at him.
Needy people all, these alienated relatives and in-laws are paralyzed by desperation, with no way out. In fact, it takes the movie's all-important fifth character to stir things up, to alter the family portrait.
She's a black, college-educated optometrist with a wonderful handle, Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). When her adoptive mum dies, leaving her parentless and bereft, this resourceful woman goes in search of her birth mother. Hortense's interview with a well-meaning social worker is another of those exquisite Mike Leigh moments he seems to reel off so effortlessly, but the heart of the matter is exposed fifteen minutes later, after Hortense, age 27, learns that her mother is none other than Cynthia, the defeated factory worker in the East End.
After an agonized telephone conversation, we get the most daring moment in a relentlessly daring film. For the first meeting between mother and daughter, Leigh sets his camera down in front of a table for two in an otherwise uninhabited cafe and simply watches--without pity but full of feeling--as teary, flustered Cynthia and cool, anguished Hortense struggle to move within range of one another. It's an amazing exchange, full of stops, starts and unexpected emotional turns, captured in one long, uninterrupted shot. In an era when filmmakers are more concerned with technical gizmos and personal styles than with drama pure, it's an uncommonly moving experience to behold two characters--two authentic souls--who are beginning to commune. Blethyn, who also won at Cannes as best actress, and Jean-Baptiste are incandescent here.
There's much more, of course. Leigh's observations on race, social class and the destructive barriers families unwittingly erect are keener than ever. He gives us a devastating scene in which the former proprietor of Maurice's photo studio slumps back into the place, drunk and broken, from a long misadventure in Australia. In the end, we have the 21st birthday party of sullen Roxanne, over at Uncle Maurice and Aunt Monica's place. There, the film's many skeins wind together, all the old wounds are reopened, and a family that has crippled itself finally begins to heal. Who can measure a parent's burden? What can a lost daughter's love mean? How does marriage endure, once nudged out of the shadows? Questions with tentative answers.
This is smart, funny, profound moviemaking for grownups--for people who have lived and lost and, if they've been lucky, recouped some of their loss. In the oblique images of gentle Maurice, the photographer, and yearning Hortense, the optometrist, and what comes to them and their family, Mike Leigh shows us what it is to see, to really open one's eyes and examine life after a long stint in the dark. We can ask nothing more from any story, plain or fancy.
Secrets & Lies. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook and Phyllis Logan.
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