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  • by Jeff Beck

Secrets & Lies: Mike Leigh's Engaging Tale of Family Connections (Criterion Blu-ray)

The Film:

Mike Leigh is not your typical filmmaker. Whereas most writer/directors will work on a script for months, maybe even years before shooting begins, Leigh approaches it quite differently. He'll have a general idea of the story and characters, but instead of churning out a screenplay beforehand, he'll extensively workshop every scene with his actors to flesh out the story and characters. From this concept has come several acclaimed films, including "Naked," "Topsy-Turvy," "Vera Drake," and perhaps his most beloved work "Secrets & Lies," which Criterion is adding into their prestigious collection this week.

The film involves a fascinating web of characters, but primarily focuses on Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young, black woman who is searching for her birth mother, and Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who gave her up for adoption after having her at 15. Hortense is an optometrist who decides to track down her mother after her adoptive mother dies, and is rather surprised to learn that Cynthia is white. Meanwhile, Cynthia, who lives with her illegitimate daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), is a bit of a mess, working in a factory, having a tumultuous relationship with her daughter, and being somewhat isolated from everyone besides her brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall). She is equally surprised when she finally meets Hortense, but eventually recalls how it happened, with the two striking up a special relationship. Cynthia decides it's best not to tell anyone about her, but, of course, the secret doesn't stay that way for long.

As mentioned, "Secrets & Lies" involves an intriguing tapestry of characters, but it ends up being most successful when it's concentrating on the main story involving Hortense and Cynthia, exploring the emotion of the situation and the budding of their new-found relationship. You have to imagine that there are so many different ways the situation could go, which even gives the film a very slight element of suspense, but as it develops early on in two particularly striking scenes (one involving their first meeting and another involving a seven-minute, single-shot conversation at a diner), it pulls you into their moving relationship and keeps you deeply engaged in its progress.

As for the other characters involved in the film, you do end up wishing that a little more time had been taken to develop their portions, including the troubled relationship between Maurice and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), the frayed relationship between Cynthia and her other daughter Roxanne, and Hortense's relationship with her adoptive family. There's even a strange, lengthy scene late in the film involving the man who Maurice bought his business from that doesn't really seem to have any place in the narrative, making it rather unusual that so much time is taken up with it.

Luckily, the film does concentrate mostly on the main story thread, which drives the film and gives it more than enough compelling material to work with. Helping things along marvelously is the brilliant ensemble, featuring excellent work from all involved, including Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, and even a brief appearance from Lesley Manville. In particular, it comes as no surprise that Blethyn won Best Actress at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and at the Cannes Film Festival, on top of earning SAG and Oscar nominations for her performance. Nor was it surprising that Jean-Baptiste earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for hers.

Overall, it's a fine film from the celebrated writer/director, who has earned a total of seven Oscar nominations over the course of his career (his first two came for writing and directing this very film). There may not be a whole lot of plot to it, but what's there is emotionally engaging, and performed by a remarkable ensemble, made even more impressive knowing that they were allowed to develop these characters through Leigh's unique workshops. It's really not hard to see why it remains one of Leigh's most popular works, even after 25 years.


"Secrets & Lies" comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1.85:1, 2K digital restoration, which was approved by director Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope. In typical Criterion fashion, the film was given the utmost care, with each frame looking beautifully sharp, and the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack giving you every bit of the dialogue and score in excellent quality. Overall, as usual, you simply couldn't ask for better treatment from the best in the business.

Special Features:

Mike Leigh Interview (2020) (30 Minutes): A conversation between writer/director Mike Leigh and composer Gary Yershon about the making of the film.

Mike Leigh Interview (1996) (89 Minutes): An audio conversation between Leigh and film critic Michel Ciment.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste Interview (28 Minutes): A discussion about the film between actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste and film critic Corrina Antrobus.


Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies" features a compelling, touching story at its core, with a magnificent ensemble portraying a fascinating tapestry of characters, and while some parts are better developed than others, it's ultimately an emotionally engaging tale that remains one of the most beloved works of the acclaimed writer/director's entire career.

Score: 3.5/5

Available on Criterion Blu-ray/DVD starting tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


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