Directed by Mike Leigh
Written by Mike Leigh
Starring Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook, and Phyllis Logan
A few entries back I wrote about Topsy-Turvy, which was just the second Mike Leigh film I’d ever seen. Because I had such a blind spot for him, I was under the assumption he specialized in the kind of muddy, earthy, improvisational dramas I really had no interest in. I wouldn’t say I expected to find some sort of misery porn in his work, but that’s not far off the mark. So I was glad when Topsy-Turvy proved a rather joyous and exuberant experience, with buoyant performances, colorful and beautiful camera work, and not a fleck of mud – either literal, or emotion – in sight. To be fair, that movie was certainly too long, and too enamored with giving everything and everybody a chance in front of the camera, but on the whole I quite enjoyed it.
Well, here we are at another Mike Leigh film – probably his breakthrough film, as far as American’s are concerned – and I can safely say that Secrets & Lies is about the very antithesis of Topsy-Turvy. It is not buoyant and colorful and joyous. Rather, it’s exactly the sort of muddy, improvisational, kitchen sink dramas about the miseries of the working class I’d always believed he made, of which I now have proof.
What’s It About?
After her adoptive parents have died, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out to find her birth mother. That turns out to be a working-class white woman, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who lives with her other daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), and longs to spend more time with her more upwardly-mobile little brother, Maurica (Timothy Spall). But, because Cynthia is certain Maurice’s wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), does not approve of her, Cynthia and Maurice are no longer close. Then, at a barbecue for Roxanne’s 21st birthday, the secrets and lies the family has been keeping/telling come out into the open.
How Was It?
Honestly, this movie was fucking grim, and watching it was an ordeal. And, at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it felt endless.
Here’s the thing: the film is basically plotless, drifting from character to character long enough to wallow in some bit of misery, or depression, before popping out again to see the same in somebody else. On the whole there is no pleasure whatsoever in the film, to the extent it seems as if the characters have no joy in their lives at all. They just sit around contemplating the results of their own life choices, and being disappointed by them.
And what plot there is in the film is perfunctory. After all, try as they might to drag out the ‘finding the birth mother’ angle, by making us meet with a social worker, and by looking at old government records, it really does not take that much time to resolve this. Which makes it a thin backbone to hang this film on, and barely enough to keep things spinning until the final showdown at the barbecue.
And no, I don’t find it grim and an ordeal because it was emotionally wrenching, because I detected almost no genuine emotion in the film at all. Rather, everybody seems to be visibly playing at emotions in the loudest possible way, making them all simply exhausting. And never once did any of the lot have a real conversation, which is to be expected when everyone is at a near-hysteria. With all the shouting and back-biting and tears on display, it’s hard to pass a sensible word. It was, on the whole, unmerciful in how it treated the audience.
Specifically, Blethyn plays Cynthia, who’s hidden the truth of the baby she’s given up for adoption for nearly 30 years ago. On its own this presents one problem, but the other problem is simply in Bletheyn’s portrayal. In her hands Cynthia is a brittle, mousy mess, ready for tears at every turn. She never really just exists in the world in any sort of normal way, but is always on an emotional high-wire.
Similarly, her interactions with her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) are never not on a knife’s edge. Let’s just be blunt: Roxanne is a bitch. She’s coarse, she’s foul, she’s unrepentantly repellent and is so intent on driving people away it makes me question whether any of the characters actually like her, or if they like her simply because the story says they must. Which is the difference between what it says on the page and what the actors perform on the stage. And to my eye, what they perform is not what is written. And yet—
And yet, of them all, Roxanne somehow seems the only one truly content in her life. She has a low-wage, menial job and, despite the encouragement from those around her, doesn’t seem to care about moving on to something better. She’s happy where she is, as long as her mom stays off her back. If we’re honest, she’s the only one who’s motivations actually make a believable jump from page to screen.
And then there is Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan as the childless Maurice and Monica, in which he is nothing but a milquetoast made to play second fiddle, in some way, to his demanding, pain-in-the-ass wife who is always debilitated by menstrual cramps. It was all too much.
If there’s anybody in the cast to mitigate things it’s Marianne Jeanne-Baptiste as Hortense, who’s generally a gentle character. But even then, Hortense as a character in the film is fraught. No, it’s not because she’s black, but because she’s nothing more than a plot device. After all, it is Hortense who sets the ‘plot’ in motion and really gives us nothing more on her than that. We never really get to see her as an independent character in any way, so she basically exists only to prod the rest of the lot towards their big argument. In fact, her character is such a non-entity that in the midst of the big argument at the end, when somebody else would have just excused herself to regroup a different day, she sort of lingers in it all, even though she is beyond peripheral to what is happening.
So unpleasant was this movie that it took three sittings to work my way through it and, if not for the fact that I was seeing it on Filmstruck and wanted to get it in before the service shut down, I might have delayed this one even longer. After all, there are better ways in life to spend 2 hours and 22 minutes.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1996 was Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Much as Elaine Benes felt on Seinfeld, I found the film boring and overdone. Certainly, there were parts I liked – Willem Dafoe – but on the whole, it was one I could live without. And, since seeing it for The Best Picture Project I have lived without it, never coming within a breath of seeing at again.
That all said, while I could go my whole life without seeing The English Patient again, I can go even longer without Secrets & Lies. After all, while there were parts of The English Patient I wanted to take from it – again, Willem Dafoe – there was nothing about Secrets & Lies I liked. And while in Secrets & Lies I appreciated how everybody was working their asses off as their characters, I just didn’t find any way into it, and cared even less about the characters at the end, than I did in the beginning.
Lesley Manville is a Mike Leigh regular and has a small part here as a social worker type who helps Hortense with finding her birth mother. Unlike her parts in Phantom Thread or Topsy-Turvy, Manville is pretty much limited here to one scene, but even in that one scene she gives a distinctly different look than she’s shown before. Unlike her icy coolness in Phantom Thread, or her controlled-lustiness in Topsy-Turvy, here she’s a much looser character, chattier, and freer with a lower-class vocab and tone. When she popped in it was like a nice little soupcon of spice, even if I was sad she popped out again.
And that is maybe the big, late-coming revelation of this series. Initially, I wanted this series to expose me to films I’d never seen before, with those films somewhat-arbitrarily chose from Oscar losers, and it’s done that, making me see things I’d never seen before. Chief among them were more William Holden films. But even better is coming to the end of it exposed me to an actress I literally knew nothing about until she play as Cyril in Phantom Thread – Lesly Manville. Before this series I’d never heard of her and now, with the end in sight, it’s made me appreciate an underseen actress and the sort of verve she can bring to a project. And though I hadn’t quite decided before on the film I’d do from 2010 for this series, I think now I’ll be having a look at Another Year, simply because it has Manville in it.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Obviously, I over-exaggerate for the effect of it, but I’m not overdoing it that much.
 None of this even mentions the score, which was all mournful horns and strings, which only put a button on the fact that everything is miserable in life and so we should be, too.
 I read her as lusty, though opinions may vary.