The East End gasworks loom large against a grey, almost white, sky. An overgrown cemetery is given this backdrop, where weeds climb nearly as high as the tombstones. A hymn is sung by a circle of mourners as a wreath reading ‘MUM’ is laid on the freshly dug ground. Life in the city means that families live and die and mourn in places like these; verdant, green patches of peace amongst the noise and clutter. At least here a family can be together.
This is where Mike Leigh’s stunning film Secrets & Lies begins. It’s not an unusual location for the director; it’s stark and blunt, but beautiful in its own, idiosyncratic way. The cemetery, like so many in London, brings to mind the phrase “you make the best of what you have”, which could also describe Leigh’s approach to family. Then, of course, the joy of Leigh’s films is that they’re never as simple as such a phrase, and become as complex, twisting, and detailed as the vines that grow across the cemetery floor.
Filmed in 1995 and released in 1996, Secrets & Lies continued writer-director Mike Leigh’s impeccable depiction of post-Thatcher Britain. The notion of meritocracies and the lionization of the middle and upper classes had further accelerated the country’s class divide, and with supposed upwards mobility came new disdain for those who hadn’t and couldn’t make their ascent.
Though his under-seen film High Hopes (1988) was more explicit in its social commentary, Leigh would, throughout the 1990s, use the politics of the time as a backdrop to his stories—a sort of unspoken but ever-present spectre that had not left with Thatcher, and mutated with ‘New Labour’. His extraordinary film Naked (1993) gave us a career best performance from David Thewlis as a drifting, horrifying (yet somehow charming) product of disillusionment and disempowerment, while his film Career Girls (1997) expertly presented the dynamics of two old friends in markedly different financial circumstances from each other.
Between those films was Secrets & Lies, perhaps Leigh’s most ambitious and far reaching film to that point. After her adoptive mother dies, a young black woman, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), attempts to track down her white birth mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). Lonely Cynthia’s tense relationship with her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), is compounded further by the distance of Cynthia’s well-to-do brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), who seems only to drop round to see his sister out of guilt, handing her a wad of cash before he sheepishly squeezes out the door.
Cynthia’s house is a familiar place, filled with childhood junk she offers up to Maurice when he visits. Every hallway seems a tight squeeze, the floor creaking under each carpeted footstep. The home’s filled with memories and character, but it seems like it could collapse at any moment (filmed on location in an actual house, Leigh recalls in an interview on the Criterion Blu-ray that the place has since become gentrified, and that their filming in the house was rushed so it could begin). Out the back is a small patio, with a glass shed piled high with rubbish, and a deckchair where Cynthia suns herself, while Roxanne smokes and reads the paper. They make the best of what they have.
It isn’t always easy to watch Cynthia, as Brenda Blethyn’s performance is so achingly vulnerable it’s like watching a person with a broken leg try to walk before it’s properly healed. Whenever she tries to engage with Roxanne about what she’s up to this weekend, or how her boyfriend is (Leigh has a finely tuned ear for the things people actually talk about at home), you sense in her a desperate need for love from her daughter, undercut with just a bit of goading, as if any reaction at all will do. It always ends in Roxanne storming out. Cynthia’s voice quivers and shakes as she calls out ‘sweethearts’ and ‘darlin’s’ to anyone that’ll accept them. She sounds as if she’s always about to cry but often stops herself. She may be vulnerable, but she isn’t weak. As a single working-class mother, she has an inner strength that shines through in Blethyn’s performance. As she herself might put it, sometimes it all just gets a bit much.
Hortense’s home couldn’t be more different to her birth mother’s. Though modest, the walls are white, clear and modern, with large kitchen windows letting in plenty of the summer light. On her birthday she sits in her living room reading Wild Swans. It was Hortense that we saw in that first scene, saying goodbye to her adoptive parent. She was told she was adopted when she was seven years old, and decides now to track Cynthia down.
Part of what makes Leigh’s film so fascinating is the willingness to interrogate the compulsive need for family and roots—so that we might find out who we are, and possibly share our lives a few other people on this earth who understand where we’re from. Whether it’s Cynthia wondering about what she might have done with her life if she hadn’t become a mother at such a young age, or Hortense reflecting that she loved her mum “but never really knew her”, there’s a deep-seated need in these characters for something lost, and possibly was never there to begin with. “You can’t miss what you never had”, says Maurice’s wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan). “Can’t you?”, responds Maurice.
It’s particularly striking to consider the loss of one’s identity in terms of class and race, and Leigh does so with careful yet eager vigour. Hortense, like so many thousands of mixed race people in Britain (I include myself in this), is in an ongoing struggle to understand who she is and where she came from. From the men taken from Jamaica and ordered to fight for the Brits in World War I, to the Windrush Scandal only just uncovered in recent years, the 20th-century saw Black Histories consistently marginalised or outright hidden. But with popular BBC series like Who Do You Think You Are? and the home DNA testing kits that promise to reveal the entire history of your family on a neat little form, interest in lineage has certainly increased in recent years.
Yet Leigh is a realist (albeit a hopeful one). The search for identity is not simple and is ongoing, and what identity actually is to somebody can change over the years. Hortense’s identity alternates throughout the film in brilliant details on Jean-Baptiste’s part. When she’s at work, or on the phone, she speaks with a guarded, and perhaps more typically middle-class accent. But when she’s hanging out with her friend Dionne (Michelle Austin), Jean-Baptiste casually slips into a more typical London accent, infused with a gently Caribbean tinge. It’s an incredibly well-observed detail, one that speaks to the way in which the working class and people of colour are expected to change their identity based on who they are interacting with.
When Hortense and Cynthia meet outside of Holborn tube station, it’s uncomfortably funny and surreal. With Hortense in her stylish work outfit and her public-speaking voice on, Cynthia is baffled. She calls her ‘sweetheart’ and tells her they must have had a mix-up at the hospital. She’s black, and Cynthia’s white. They’ve got it all wrong, surely. But under the fluorescent light of a greasy spoon, the birth certificates are undeniable. Cynthia breaks into tears. She’s terrified to admit that this could be her daughter, this living embodiment is a living embodiment of regret, of a mistake made when she was still a child herself. A young working-class girl made to make an absurdly difficult choice when she was barely out of school.
As she sobs and tells Hortense she’s lovely and beautiful, Marianne Jean-Baptiste gives an incredible, largely silent performance. In the seven-minute take, Hortense sits next to her mother as she collapses into tears. Jean-Baptiste’s performance oscillates brilliantly between discomfort, stoic patience and exasperation. Blethyn delivers the funniest moment of pathos you’re likely to see in British film with an expertly timed ‘oh, bloody hell’, as she suddenly recalls the night that Hortense was conceived. It is a scene of supremely detailed acting, and carefully shifting dynamics.
We learn that Cynthia didn’t give Hortense away because she was black—in fact, she didn’t even know her race, as she couldn’t stand to look at her before she was taken away, and believed another man to be her father. Hortense has the upper hand, with Cynthia terrified for Roxanne to find out that she has a sister, and desperate to wipe away the mistake and move on with life. But the sense that Hortense has been robbed of catharsis is palpable. Cynthia’s sobbing pushes Hortense further into a reserved, almost parental role. It’s a horrible moment for both women, and Leigh lets us sit in it for as long as we can take.
Discomfort is also an issue for Cynthia’s brother, Maurice. He looks deeply out of place in his house, a six-bedroom detached house in the suburbs where kids can play outside late and the bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms. He trudges around as if he carries his history with him and perhaps he does. He’s made a comfortable life for himself as a portrait photographer, but like Cynthia, he cannot get past his regrets. He knows he’s left his sister behind, and the pain in his eyes is nearly unbearable as his sobbing sister clings to him and wails “you’re all I’ve got left”. Even within a sibling relationship, the class and wealth divide can prove alienating.
His wife, Monica, has a suburban malaise which Leigh is careful not to trivialise—in lesser hands, her preening and barely concealed distaste for Cynthia would define her, but Leigh carefully unravels the secret pain that she converts into scorn for the easiest living target.
Spall is necessarily understated as Maurice, a man who wants nothing more than for everyone to be happy—if he can’t do it at home, he’ll do it at work, where he makes his clients laugh for the camera on cue, and can capture them at their finest, and perhaps phoniest. He probably knows it’s all fake, but it’s his. When a crying client in a bridal gown can barely muster a smile, it’s not his job to ask why. The smile is there for a moment, captured on film and ready to be mounted in a frame, the pain pushed away to somewhere far beyond the purview of the camera. He makes the best of what he has.
Mike Leigh’s frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Dick Pope, shot the film, and some of his most arresting compositions feature Maurice as the focal point. After visiting Cynthia, Maurice sits in a pub with a lonely pint sitting before him. Besides the frame-engulfing portrait of a long-dead aristocrat hanging on the wall behind him, Maurice is here alone, disappearing into the deep mahogany colours of the walls. He looks a broken man. The natural light pouring in from a window illuminates him as if he were sitting for a painting himself, but the magic of the image comes from the blending of the artificial and the real. The image, and the film itself, could be described as heightened realism, the kind of poetry you might find in the ordinariness of every day life. They are moments that come naturally and as such, manufacturing them successfully is a miracle. When Leigh and Pope (along with composer Andrew Dickson, who provides a bittersweet score of austere strings and melancholy brass) conjure them, they are utterly transcendent.
The film culminates in a family barbecue at Maurice and Monica’s home to celebrate Roxanne’s 21st birthday. She brings along her hilariously uncomfortable boyfriend, Paul (Lee Ross), while Maurice invites his assistant Jane (the always good Elizabeth Berrington). Cynthia tells them she’s bringing a ‘work colleague’, not yet ready to admit to everyone who Hortense actually is. The barbecue might be a neat way to bring together each character, but there is nothing contrived in its execution. From the temperamental weather to the inconsequential small-talk over the table, the scenes play out in long takes and with striking naturalism.
This can surely be owed to the fact that Leigh’s a prolific theatre director and playwright, and spent months with the actors in rehearsals and improv sessions, fleshing out backstories for their characters. Clearly, it took a lot of practice to make it feel so natural. Yet the tension between the real and the performative is still there. Monica gives a miserable Cynthia a tour around the house (Jane, however, loves it) like a host showing off a prize on a game-show, while Cynthia’s attempt to make Hortense feel welcome border on the patronising. Nobody is fully comfortable (after all, this is a British family gathering).
Once again, the dialogue and character touches say so much with so little. When Hortense arrives, Monica barely has the door open before saying “no thanks, we’re not interested”, taking one glance at her and not even considering that she might belong there. Later, when Paul says he lives in a bedsit, she casually proclaims “what a shame”. Throughout the film, Leigh uses these interactions as a method of building tension. Interaction after interaction, nobody says what they mean. With each circumvention of emotions, the film holds in a little more until it is ready to burst.
He may be a dramatist, but Leigh isn’t an exaggerator of human behaviour. One gets the sense that after the barbecue, things will just continue on. They might get a bit better, or a bit worse, and in a few years time, perhaps there will be another moment of familial drama. But Leigh doesn’t go in for anything as contrived as a narrative conclusion. We understand the emotional narrative, and that’s enough.
It brings to mind a moment I love in the finale of BBC sitcom The Office (2001-03). “If you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending, is it? I’m still here. My life is not over”, says Tim (Martin Freeman). It’s something that British dramatists particularly excel at—from Mike Leigh, to Ken Loach, to Tony Richardson. There’s something beautiful about the idea that, for better or worse, we just keep on going. It gives art freedom from constrictive conclusions. It does not follow the arbitrary rule that something exciting must happen every twenty minutes, or that each character must learn something. How often in real life does that happen?
Instead, Secrets & Lies draws strength from the details of daily life, the things that are ongoing. The search for identity, the need for family and the impossibility of making it all work. Amongst the struggle, Leigh points to the possibility that perhaps family is enough, and perhaps it is the reason we keep going through a life in which we don’t learn much, a life in which we hurt and regret. A group of people thrown together by birth and blood might not suddenly be free from those things, but at least they can share them.
On the back patio, Hortense and Roxanne peer into the shed. She points out a kiddie chair that used to be hers. Weeds grow between the cracks in the floor, and Cynthia steps over them as she brings out a tray of biscuits and tea. The three women sit in this little clear patch, talking, reminiscing. “This is the life ain’t it?” says Cynthia. You make the best of what you have.
UK • FRANCE | 1996 | 136 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • GREEK
Blu-ray Special Features:
- New 2K digital restoration, approved by director Mike Leigh and director of photography Dick Pope, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. This restoration of the film looks stunning. Pope’s colour palette is subtle and rich, and is presented faithfully here. The texture of the original film is kept, and most of essential of all, the film visually exudes the feeling of summertime in London. Andrew Dickson’s score is brought to the foreground and sounds better than ever—intensely moving.
- New conversation between Leigh and composer Gary Yershon. Illuminating and entertaining, Mike Leigh clears up some misconceptions about the making of the film and provides key context in its development.
- New conversation between actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste and film critic Corrina Antrobus. Fascinating interview with an underrated actor, this conversation highlights just how important this film was to the British film industry.
- Audio interview with Leigh, conducted by film critic Michel Ciment in 1996.
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
- PLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Mike Leigh.
starring: Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Lesley Manville, Elizabeth Berrington, Michele Austin, Lee Ross, Emma Amos & Hannah Davis.