Some movies hover on your “to see” list for ages until you kinda forget about them. I meant to check out this affecting British family drama, written and directed by Mike Leigh, ever since watching the 1997 Academy Awards.
I haven’t seen any Mike Leigh movie period prior to Secret & Lies, which by all accounts is his most accessible film. He apparently has a very interesting approach to filmmaking, first assembling the cast and workshopping the characters with the actors for months, and only then writing the screenplay. Unsurprisingly, this approach results in terrific lived-in performances where the actors, given so much time to spend with their characters, seem to be barely acting.
While the film is a true ensemble and it’s hard to pinpoint the protagonist, the catalyst of the piece is Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young black woman in her late 20s who works as an optometrist in London. Having recently buried her adoptive mother and with both of her adoptive parents now dead, Hortense makes a decision to track down her birth mother. When she obtains the necessary papers from the adoption agency, she at first thinks that there must be a mistake on the documents, which indicate that her mother was white.
But no, Hortense’s birth mother is indeed a white woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who works in a factory and has another daughter, a rough-edged, foul-tempered hellraiser. She also has a younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), who owns a photography studio and has climbed his way out of the council house living to a higher social status. Maurice’s chilly wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), “toffee-nosed cow” in Cynthia’s words, is the main reason the two siblings rarely see each other. Cynthia herself is a twitchy mess of a woman who seems, at all times, to be five seconds away from an epic nervous breakdown.
Eventually, Hortense persuades Cynthia to meet her, which leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film, a long take in a cafe that puts the two women in the same frame and never cuts away to relieve the initial discomfort and awkwardness. There’s an equally effective long take later in the film, at a family barbecue that puts all the characters together in a scene brimming with tension even as everyone is cheerfully passing the food to each other. Interestingly, outside of very subtle hints that Cynthia might harbour some prejudice, race never really becomes an issue in the film, and though there’s a simmering class-related tension between Cynthia and her upwardly mobile sister-in-law, Cynthia’s lower social standing is a complete non-issue for Hortense who seems to approach the experience of meeting her birth mother with a complete lack of judgement.
Brenda Blethyn’s big performance is inevitably the showiest (earning her the Best Actress trophy at Cannes and an Oscar nomination), but Timothy Spall is also memorable as a genuinely decent bloke struggling to keep the peace and make everybody happy. The film is generous to all of its characters, including the ones who at first come off as unlikeable caricatures. Even the humorous montages of Maurice’s photography sessions that break up the story early on offer eloquent snapshots of the people who pass through the studio and give a sense that they all have their own stories to tell.
Whether or not the film wraps up the story a tad too neatly and happily is a legit question, but after sitting through the scenes that reveal the depths to which this family has been damaged by the secrets and silence, it’s rather satisfying to see people’s best instincts win over in the end, so I can’t complain too much.
P.S. I’m so used to watching everything with subtitles these days that my immediate reaction to the DVD’s lack of subtitles was, nooooo how I’m going to make it through the accents?? But it was fine.