Secrets & Lies Review

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a young black optometrist whose adoptive mother has just died. She sets out to find her real mother, who turns out to be Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white unmarried mother who lives with her other daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) in a South London terraced house. Cynthia's brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) is a successful photographer who lives in suburbia with his social-climbing wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Hortense gets in touch with Cynthia and after the initial shock they become firm friends. But when Cynthia invites Hortense along to a barbecue Maurice and Monica throw for Roxanne's twenty-first birthday, all manner of skeletons come out of the cupboard...

After Life is Sweet and the unexpectedly dark Naked, (which might have been called Life isn't Sweet), Mike Leigh made Secrets & Lies. As a demonstration that Leigh is more valued overseas than in its native country, the film is not only partly French financed, but it won the Palme d'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
Superficially, we're on familiar Leigh turf: the contemporary London setting, the working/lower-middle class milieu, the expert blend of comedy and pathos. But in this film Leigh develops his characters and themes about as far as they can possibly go. This has an effect on his running times: Secrets & Lies, like Naked before it, hovers around the two-and-a-quarter-hour mark, but the film is so absorbing that you don't notice the film's length. The comedy comes from social embarrassment, the pathos (and the film is very moving) from the often hidden pain the characters are in. The two are more seamlessly integrated than they are in Life is Sweet, which in many ways was a dry run for this film. Monica's hostility to Cynthia seems like snobbishness, but has its roots in her childlessness. Leigh gives a lot of space to his actors, deriving the script from improvisation sessions. The cast is faultless. Brenda Blethyn got most of the plaudits (she and Jean-Baptiste both received Oscar nominations) which caused Timothy Spall to be somewhat overlooked. He's very impressive as a man who can no longer cope with the fact that the three people he loves most in the world can't stand each other.

Leigh is not often seen as a "visual" film director. It's true that his style doesn't draw attention to itself, but he always places the camera in the right place. His characters' apartness is emphasised by cross-cutting, while Cynthia and Hortense's growing closeness is captured by long-held two-shots. The scene where they first meet, in a Holborn café, culminates in a shot that runs an unbroken nine minutes. Also noteworthy is the barbecue scene, captured in a complexly-choreographed single deep-focus take that lasts nearly five minutes. Dick Pope's photography is sharp, naturalistic and self-effacing, allowing Leigh to use Alison Chitty's production design to point up further character detail.

Secrets & Lies was shot in a ratio of 1.75:1, which is near enough to 16:9 not to make much difference. The transfer is anamorphic and virtually flawless: only a scene of bathroom blinds gives any trouble due to shimmering.

The film was released with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. The DVD is Dolby Surround, but either way this isn't a sound mix intended to annoy your neighbours or give your speakers a workout. Much of it favours the dialogue, with the surround barely used except for Andrew Dickson's score. The dialogue is always clear but even so, after complaining about other VCI DVDs lacking English subtitles I'm glad to report that this disc has them. There are twenty-one chapter stops. The disc is encoded for Region 2 only.

The only extra is the trailer, which is in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic and much too contrasty. Many discs twice the price of this one have no extras and non-anamorphic pictures, so at a RRP of £9.99 Secrets & Lies has to be a bargain.

One definition of a masterpiece is a summing-up and development of what has come before in its maker's career, before he and she moves on to new territory. Secrets & Lies is just such a masterpiece.

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