|Director Mike Leigh|
SECRETS AND LIES A Great Britain (142 mi) 1996 d: Mike Leigh
We choose the parents in this life that can teach us something, so that when we go into the next life, we get it right. Of course, sometimes it don’t work, does it? —Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste)
Easily among the best works of Mike Leigh, known for his ensemble productions with their rich characterization and raw emotional honesty, yet there’s a redemptive quality to this work, achieved using a systematic and controlled form of improvisational rehearsals as a preparatory phase enhancing the final result, where what we see onscreen is the result of a lengthy process of improvisation, yet in the end remains tautly scripted and precise, heavily influenced by strong and powerful performances. Traditionally exploring the lower rungs of British family life, accentuating the grim, angry elements of the post WWII working class, similar to Ken Loach and Terence Davies who have done the same, each in their own way, yet Leigh’s focus has always been in search of character, an exploration of identity, unearthed only after an extensive repetition of several month’s worth of rigorous rehearsals, where the process itself brings the eventual truth to light. Often associated with the likes of directors John Cassavetes or Robert Altman, known for incorporating large doses of improvisation and spontaneity into their works, allowing actors plenty of leeway, Leigh in extensive interviews prefers to acknowledge the influence of Yasujirō Ozu, Satyajit Ray, and Jean Renoir, identifying with their social realist expressions of humanity, hopefully sharing the same spirit with his own films, while also greatly influenced by fine art and theater, particularly playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, known for blending naturalism with a “heightened realism.” In Great Britain, Leigh is often compared to fellow director Ken Loach due to their exploration of social issues and use of improvisation, often setting their films in a working class milieu, yet their politics are at odds and their films fundamentally different, with Loach rigidly and almost religiously socialist while Leigh is more in line with the Jewish tradition, having spent time in Zionist youth camps where they gather collectively in groups and work creatively, reflecting a kibbutz mentality where they tend to talk things out. The director adds brief moments of spontaneity through the use of a photography studio, showing snippets of random shots being set up, adding an amusing variety to the mix, such as a little kid sticking his finger up his nose, a couple bickering, or trying to get a live-wire dog to sit still. Inevitably one subject would smile while another would not, revealing the imbalance and unpredictability of the universe. British audiences, apparently, explode with laughter when watching this film, while also giggling continuously, a social phenomenon that doesn’t travel well to other countries who simply don’t comprehend the visual references, while also relying upon subtitles that may not adequately translate the verbal humor, failing to do justice to the rather idiosyncratic British slang, removing all elements of subversive tone. Leigh has a remarkable talent for making human failings seem viciously funny and absurd, turning misery into exhilarating family entertainment, yet there’s also a spirit of connection and society reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME (1939), with a rotund Timothy Spall as Maurice bearing a striking resemblance to Renoir as Octave, where everyone in this film emerges a little wiser for their troubles. Leigh’s extensive use of rehearsal time allows actors to focus in on the tiny details of their character, accumulating bits and pieces along the way, constantly reinventing themselves, yet remaining laser focused on the continuously developing inner life, with the goal being an eruption of emotional intensity in front of the camera. Merged within the ordinariness of the setting, this is an exploration of unremarkable lives whose unknown backstories come to the fore in dramatic fashion, where not all characters are created equal, as some only appear onscreen briefly, while others dominate the film. In this case, that would be Brenda Blethyn, who provides a blistering, tour-de-force screen presence that rivals any in the Mike Leigh repertoire, winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, while the film itself won the Palme D’Or as Best Film, receiving twice the budget and a wider release in Great Britain than any of his earlier films, making a huge profit at the box office and still his top-grossing movie. It’s a lengthy, drawn-out affair, with Leigh himself not knowing how it would end until they had shot three-quarters of the film, where characters are slowly established in a series of intricately drawn vignettes, speaking in half-truths and half-finished sentences, holding information back from each other, as well as the audience, just as Leigh held information back from them, all pointing to the underlying tensions that are unleashed only at the end in a Maurice Pialat combustion of dramatic furor, raising the intensity level off the charts, creating a theater of the uncomfortable, forcing viewers to agonize over what they witness, yet unable to take their eyes off the screen, as characters are finally forced to confront the painful emotional depths of the secrets and lies of their overly repressed lives.
A variation on the GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967) theme, the film centers on the issue of adoption, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a well-educated, well-mannered, black middle-class optometrist working in London who was adopted as a baby deciding she would like to meet her birth mother, taking advantage of an English law passed in 1975 allowing those who were adopted legal access to records tracing the identity of their natural parents. Coming on the heels of the death of the adoptive mother who raised her, she is seeking something missing in her life, willing to unlock doors (with the help of overworked social worker Lesley Manville, who only has time to meet on her lunch hour), not really knowing what to expect, where this process can be overwhelmingly difficult, as birth mothers may never want to see these children again (their right under the law), only adding to the devastating frustrations of their own complicated lives, which may still be on the precipice of financial and emotional ruin, having delicately avoided this subject their entire lives just to maintain a certain equilibrium. Brenda Blethyn as the neurotic Cynthia is a bit of a mess, an unmarried working-class mother filled with a neverending supply of anxiety and self-doubt, living in a rundown tenement flat working ten-hour shifts at a cardboard box factory, while her resentful 20-year old daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) works for the city as a street sweeper and loathes every minute spent with her, both chain-smokers who hate their jobs, yet understand the inevitable consequences of doing without, so they trudge through what they must, not really finding any happiness or satisfaction in the tedium of their lives, as it’s a constant struggle. Continually at odds, literally breathing down each other’s necks in their suffocating, claustrophobic environment, they spend their time bickering over just about everything, with Roxanne refusing to tell her anything about her new boyfriend, Paul (Lee Ross), never really sharing or trusting one another, seeing each other as adversaries. Timothy Spall (performing with leukemia, not known at the time, hospitalized after the filming) is Maurice, living a comfortable life out in the suburbs, the younger brother of Cynthia who for all practical purposes raised her little brother after the early death of her own mother, providing him her family inheritance as the down payment to establish his own photography studio that is doing quite well, where we see his easy rapport with his customers, prodding them into feeling at ease, having mixed success. His own wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) is as coolly detached as they come, probably frigid (yet we learn at the end she’s tragically barren, unable to have children, a woman’s worst nightmare), avoiding Maurice like he’s the plague, exhibiting no intimacy, spending all of her time decorating their new six-room house, her child substitute, hiding their misery behind expensive furnishings, obsessively grooming their home while turning it into a perfectly sterile environment. The gloom of her character, however, nearly derails the film, but she holds her own in the end. Adding to the spontaneous effect of the performances, Leigh only told each actor what they needed to know about their own character, never revealing the overall storyline, so as the film progresses they learn what viewers learn for the very first time. Blethyn, for instance, knew she was a mother who gave away a baby at an early age, but had no idea that Marianne Jean-Baptiste would be black, thinking it all must have been some mistake, that it wasn’t conceivably possible. Yet when Hortense comes armed with official documents and signatures, including the address of the mother, which is where she still lives today, she has to reconsider, yet never reveals the circumstances of who the father may be, though the double-take she does apparently recalling a long-suppressed memory is a priceless moment, obviously still too embarrassed by whatever transpired. Veering from a searing vérité realism to surreal photogenic montages (a cavalcade of stars from previous Leigh films) to utterly contrived melodrama, with occasional moments fueled by disappointment and pure nihilistic despair (more in line with the director’s own darker preoccupations), like Roxanne’s utter disgust with herself and everyone else around her, or misanthrope Ron Cook, the original owner of the photography shop, who comes back to pay a catastrophic visit that feels more like an extortion fleecing or a paranormal haunting, leaving all in his wake feeling utterly terrorized, yet Maurice stands up to him, a side of him we don’t otherwise see. It’s interesting that the working-class white world is constantly in a state of emotional flux, while the noticeably idealized black middle-class stability of Hortense (perfect in every way) is a striking contrast, stoically able to handle adversity, revealing a remarkable grace under tremendous pressure, while Blethyn is a literal water works of tears and emotional combustion, always one step from the edge, caught up in the confusion of her circumstances, never able to lift herself out of the emotional stranglehold she finds herself in, feeling unloved, unappreciated, and something of an utter failure as a mother, with her daughter following in her footsteps.
In preparation for their roles, Blethyn actually worked ten-hour days at a box factory, Marianne Jean-Baptiste attended optometry classes for three months, and Timothy Spall learned the photography trade, working side-by-side with a professional photographer. This is unusual for any film, but feels particularly compelling in this case, as the film exudes a sense of naturalism, sustained throughout the entire length of the film, yet two revelatory scenes in particular stand out. The initial meet of Hortense and Cynthia in an empty café is a thing of beauty (both nominated for an Oscar), a long uninterrupted take of about eight minutes by cinematographer Dick Pope, who has worked with Leigh since Life Is Sweet (1990), using an Ozu-like static camera, offering a documentary-style observation, finding them sitting side by side, with the camera capturing every grimace and sideways glance, allowing no distractions, with Cynthia thoroughly embarrassed and utterly devastated by the news, never having looked at the baby, moving from pure disbelief to recognizing her role and responsibility in what appears to be a complete shock, yet ultimately sensing the truth of the matter, no matter how hard she continues to disbelieve. Her colloquial manner of speech, calling everyone “sweetheart,” is a grating habit that also has an endearing quality, identifying her working-class roots, offering a sense of intimacy while also maintaining a healthy distance. The unembellished power of this sequence is riveting, a moment of rare emotional intensity, jolting the viewer into the seriousness of what we’re witnessing, thoroughly capturing the awkwardness of the moment and all the exasperation that goes with it, creating an explosion of untapped emotions, viewed entirely differently from each person’s perspective. With only the faintest hint that they’ll ever contact one another again, Cynthia eventually grows fond of Hortense, the family success story she never had, actually embracing her as if she was one of her own, yet keeping it all a secret from the rest of her family. Emboldened by this budding relationship, Cynthia invites Hortense to a family birthday celebration, once more using a static camera with people moving in and out of the frame as they celebrate Roxanne’s 21st birthday with a backyard barbeque, Secrets and Lies (1996) - The barbecue scene YouTube (5:02), the calm before the storm, with Hortense initially identifying herself as a friend from work so as not to cause discomfort or raise suspicions, yet her anonymity is put to the test, unraveling in a series of carefully invented lies, until eventually Cynthia drops a bombshell, revealing Hortense is actually her daughter and Roxanne’s older sister, just blurting it out in a stunning revelation that reverberates throughout the family, sending Roxanne flying out the door in a rage, just part of a steamroll effect of paralyzing emotional devastation. Maurice, however, convinces her to return, allowing each one to face up to their own role in this family debacle, facing the truth for perhaps the first time in their lives, making an attempt to repair the irreparable, perhaps with Bergman’s jaw-droppingly original Persona (1966) in mind, where lives must literally be reconstructed onscreen. Not for the faint of heart, it’s a surprising turn of events, artfully shot in a vérité style, a collaborative process allowing the actors to shine, ignoring the obvious race factor, which is never dwelled upon, instead accentuating the blind spots and class differences, where Hortense actually has more in common with Maurice, both financially secure and highly observant, each curiously using their own eyes, not just professionally, yet as windows to the soul, allowing them to see something in others that Cynthia and Roxanne may be too preoccupied to see, doomed by continuously having to live in such desperate straits, overwhelmed by work and a crushingly oppressive economic circumstance. Despite the occasionally jarring, overly somber string quartet-style musical score from Andrew Dickson, and the apparent ease for a black stranger to be accepted into a white family, this film packs a punch, asking questions about who we are and where we come from, evolving into who we can become with the help of others, not nearly as grim as it seems, revealing an extraordinary generosity of spirit, offering substantial complexity and insight into the plight of each one of the characters, yet the remarkably stirring and unfiltered performance by Blethyn embodies vulnerability and sympathy, creating an avenue of hope that might take some by surprise, as this is ultimately an optimistic picture, despite taking a sharp detour into the decrepit corners of lifelong rationalization and guilt, a kind of ingrained self-deception that can punish people to no end, literally consuming their lives with unsparing torment, clouding their road to a brighter future. An anti-Thatcherite in the 80’s, Leigh’s films railed against the conservative politics of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said there’s no such thing as society, only individuals rising or falling by their own bootstraps ("There is no such thing as society" (Thatcher) - Brian Deer). After living with nearly twenty years of bitter social and economic divisiveness in Great Britain, Leigh’s film offers a more conciliatory tone, one that increasingly senses the importance of the collective status quo, a fragile coalition, to be sure, but part of the modern moral imperative. After many years of resentment and family estrangement, this family mirrors that same sense of connectedness, where valuing one another is the first step in recognizing our collective worth, in effect suggesting “We are all people,” becoming something of a redemption story.