Mike Leigh is known as one of the leading lights of British social realism and Secrets and Lies (1996) is generally considered to be his best film. The film was feted at Cannes upon release and continues to be discussed and revisited extensively inside film culture and criticism.
Secrets and Lies is a film of two totally separate halves, clearly delineated by a single scene. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so differently about two halves of the same film. The first feels very domestic and at times like an episode of a soap opera, with a strange over-acting, mugging style of performances. This half of the film is almost totally without incident, setting up the three disparate storylines you know will cohere in the end, but seeming to take an interminable amount of time getting there. However just when you feel destined for a mind-numbing experience, Leigh, along with actors Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste deliver one of the better scenes of film history. I’ll avoid giving away too much detail for fear of spoilers, but it’s is a first meeting in a cafe, apparently mostly improvised in a single take. They meet and run the gamut of emotions – apprehension, awkwardness, comfort, relief and cautious affection. The two performers establish a great dynamic and blow everything up to this point away. This scene is perhaps the single greatest argument against the notion that realist films somehow equal boring. From there, the film seems to breeze by. Not because it has gotten ‘lighter’ in any sense. If anything the heavy themes are explored in more depth from this point on. But because the film has some much needed dynamism to it as new relationships are formed and impact on all of those built up so slowly in the first half of the film. This all culminates in a family BBQ that takes up most of the film’s last half hour. Just like the cafe scene, here is a sequence that is riveting on the surface level, but which also sits atop of untold depth both thematically and in terms of wrapping up the film’s plot.
The obvious thematic concern of Secrets and Lies is a focus on identity, but the concept of class and class relations is also prevalent. Notions of identity are examined through the prism of a family, like so many, straining at the seams or already broken. Part of this is an establishment by Leigh of an example of intense familial loneliness that is actually quite devastating to behold. From there it interrogates age old themes such as what defines a person and how that definition comes in opposition to those around them. Typical themes that are examined through what I think is a relatively atypical manner (again, I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers here). Similarly traditional notions of class are both parodied via exaggeration and inverted throughout the film, always reflecting and challenging those themes of identity. There is a third, very simple theme of the film too: families are totally fucked up. The film totally nails that one. Performance-wise, the film dispenses with much of the understatement so prevalent in realist film. Brenda Blethyn’s performance is a brilliant, if strange one. Through the first half, her over the top, dottering and mentally fragile mother is frequently distracting. But seeing that aspect of the performance in a new light after the rest of the film suggests it’s an effective approach as a whole. At times she is crushingly tough to watch as newfound emotions overtake that earlier dottering quality. Timothy Spall is equally good in what is perhaps a less-showy role, his photographer character provides a unique lens for the film to be seen through, as well as attempting to provide a sense of stability to the mess of a family swirling around him. And he slays an almost Shakespearean soliloquy toward the end of the film that in lesser hands would have been cringe worthy, but here it recounts the concerns of the film as well as provoking additional consideration about them.
Verdict: In the end, the achingly dull first half of Secrets and Lies is well worth enduring for the exceptional craft and heart of the second. Perhaps on a repeat viewing, the first will actually enhance what comes after it. For a thematically dense, but not tiresome drama you can do much, much worse than this. Pint of Kilkenny