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The Hidden Family

Marianne Jean-Baptiste & Claire Rushbrook
Family Reunion: Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, left) goes in search of her birth mother and meets her stepsister, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook).

Mike Leigh's new film, 'Secrets & Lies,' strips away the protective layers of a family struggling to stave off painful memories

By Richard von Busack

THIS IS NOT a titanic age in film. Movies are big in size, but they are almost never big in scope. The armies of technical assistants rebuilding vanished civilizations or devising alien worlds can create beautiful illusions, but these dissolve like smoke as soon as you leave the theater. Like so many other people, I have come to prefer fantasy and satire to what purport to be "movies about people," preferring simpleminded diversion to dramas that seemed disgustingly false, to movies that didn't touch you so much as grope you.

Vladimir Nabokov once used the expression "the wings and claws of a novel" to describe the effect he aimed for. In our time, most modern novels, let alone films, don't have wings and claws. British director Mike Leigh's monumental new film, Secrets & Lies, possesses both; it deserves to be compared to the work of Balzac or Dickens.

Secrets & Lies is a long, rich tour of the world of a family crippled by the unsaid. Leigh shows us not only the specifics of some little lives, but of every family. The film is a portrait of Leigh's time and his world. The director's dense, emotionally overwhelming style was previously seen in his painstakingly rehearsed, almost collective High Hopes (1988) and Life Is Sweet (1991). There as here, he unleashes characters who coalesce and then change from workaday figures to epic heroes and heroines.

AS THE FILM BEGINS, the hard-working, reasonably prosperous London portrait photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall, the deluded restaurateur from Life Is Sweet) and his wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), are facing their annual duty to their relatives, namely, Maurice's sister, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a hard-drinking factory woman who lives in the slummy East End of London.

Monica and Cynthia are near-enemies. Monica frankly dreads having to see her sister-in-law, and Cynthia privately refers to her brother's wife as a "toffee-nosed cow." At first, we follow Monica's opinion because we see what an exasperating woman Cynthia is--a crude meddler, a constant aggravation to her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who is anxious to get out of the house. When Maurice turns up to check on Cynthia, she grabs him shamelessly, blubbering about her long-lost brother who never comes to see her--and giving us a lesson in why he doesn't.

The scene under the titles shows us a funeral, a different tale that at first appears to have nothing to do with Maurice, Monica and Cynthia. The sweet-tempered (and black) optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is doing her best to live through the unexpected loss of her own mother.

All are related, as it turns out. Hortense is a family secret. She's the natural daughter of Cynthia, a child she gave up for adoption shortly before Roxanne was born. Roxanne knows nothing about her half-sister, and Hortense's yearnings to see her birth mother bring to a head the tensions in the family.

That these tensions are, in the finale, too rapidly exposed and diffused is the insignificant flaw of Secrets & Lies. Bottled-up men can't uplug themselves at the same rate as women, I think, and the resolution of the family's troubles seems a little too rapid even for the necessity--as in all of Leigh's films--of ending on a note of grace.

Brenda Blethyn & Claire Rushbrook
Home Is Where the Spleen Is: Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, left) perseveres through drink while daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) hopes to escape the trap of family.

IN HIS biggest film yet (budgeted at some $4 million), Leigh creates a wide range of high comedy and tragedy, the transitions happening so deftly that you respond to them even before you register mood change. In Secrets & Lies, the superb dialogue, barbed wisecracks, hurt rejoinders and everyday slangy expressions of Leigh's previous films take on a new depth.

Cynthia, an unstable woman, unstabilizes everyone around her, making the flare-up of emotions always possible. And although there are too many brilliant scenes to list here, there are two long scenes of extraordinary sharpness, as daring as anyone's marathon tracking shots. The first is Roxanne's birthday party, in which the secret of Hortense is first badly kept, and then foolishly blown, giving way to an explosion of tears and recriminations.

The second, the initial meeting of Cynthia and Hortense at a cafe, is a true emotional roller-coaster ride. Cynthia's guilt and denial are wringing her dry; Hortense is sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes mortified, by her birth mother's pain. The mood is suddenly lifted by the disturbingly comic realization that Cynthia has actually managed to drink Hortense's father off her mind.

In Blethyn's Cynthia, we see the wounding quality of Tennessee Williams, without the poetry to take the poison out. Blethyn shows us, without making the character ridiculous, the coquette, preserved by gin inside the tipsy middle-aged woman. And here, as in Blanche du Bois, is the saving grace of politesse in a woman of sometimes crucifying obliviousness.

At one point, Cynthia--just trying to be a good mom, as she thinks it--goads Roxanne into knocking her down. She's still sobbing over the encounter when she gets the fresh blow of the first phone call from Hortense. It's heart-wrenching to see Cynthia's civil side emerge (she answers the request to meet face-to-face with a half-choked "No, I shouldn't think so, darling"). Later, the resistance changes as Cynthia yields, and her returned daughter becomes a delightful secret, a reason to live.

LEIGH'S MOVIES not only look as if they could be continued for hours before you saw anything that felt like dramatic license, but all of the minor characters could be followed into movies of their own. Amidst the big performances--and Blethyn's is as big as a performance gets--there are detailed smaller ones.

Lesley Manville, as a social worker, would have been just a minor character in someone else's film. Here, she's absolutely riveting. Manville's social worker treats Hortense to what must be her usual speech to someone who wants to meet their birth mother, and it is an extraordinary job of acting: Through it, you see the bitterness of a badly overbooked civil servant, some very muted compassion, a professional speeding through a task, the patronizing of anyone foolish to dare not heed her advise and a veiled but yet visible fellow feeling for anyone searching for a different history, for different possibilities in life.

Leigh's' prodigious talent as a director is also flaunted in the photography montages, during which we look at the many ways that Maurice coaxes the right portrait from different subjects. These are the first directly self-referential sequences in a Mike Leigh movie; they are full of faces we've seen in his other movies, including Leigh's ex-wife Allison Steadman, Liz Smith and High Hopes' Ruth Sheen (teamed, teasingly, with an equally toothy mate for a portrait). The sequences might have seemed like a showoff in the lens of a lesser director; here, they display the easy confidence of an artist at the height of his powers.

In more recent interviews, Leigh has tried to back away from being pigeonholed as a sort of Cockney Chekhov, merely an unusually adept chronicler of the kitchen-sink drama. (The expression "kitchen sink" to describe films about poor people in England was first used by critics the 1950s. Previous to the age of the Angry Young Men and the earth mothers who soothed their fevered brows, no one had seen a kitchen sink in a British film.)

In an interview with John Lahr of The New Yorker, Leigh points out that the working class he grew up with has disappeared. (Our own middle class is likely to follow.) It should be stressed, then, that Leigh is one of the world's greatest filmmakers, living or dead, and at the very least easily the best director England has produced in 25 years. Still, his particular cachet is that no one is as adept as he is at surveying the borderlands between lower and middle classes.

The main theme in Secrets & Lies is--as in High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, as in Dickens--the cost of striving to reach the next rung up on the economic ladder. Most people who remain in what's left of the middle class came from another class originally, and it's an untouchable secret in American film that many of them have had to cut some human losses to get there and to stay there. There are parents, brothers or sisters or children with chronically messy lives left behind and friends who fell by the wayside to hard drinking or drugs. Or there are people avoided for "shiftiness," for being marginal criminals, like Paul (Lee Ross), Roxanne's somewhat menacing boyfriend.

Secrets & Lies is, among everything else, an eloquent observation of what gets left behind in the search for upward mobility, a wrenching lament for the vice of selfishness and a bleak, hopeful wish for connection and reconciliation.

Secrets & Lies (R; 144 min.), written and directed by Mike Leigh, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brenda Blethyn and Claire Rushbrook.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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