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The 'Secret' of Leigh's Success

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1996

"Life isn’t fair, is it? Someone always draws the short straw," says Maurice, a portrait photographer, as he snaps pictures of his highly distraught female subject. The woman, whose face was disfigured in an assault, happens to be a beauty consultant. The pictures are being taken for legal evidence.

In "Secrets & Lies," English filmmaker Mike Leigh’s deeply touching movie about family relationships and the ever painful search for identity, these two figures are brought together only momentarily. But they’re part of a richly woven tapestry of universal anguish. In this corner of middle-class England, the world is filled with bitter acrimony, painful secrets and a vague sense of hopelessness.

Maurice (Timothy Spall), who amounts to the movie’s central conscience, is about to experience these ubiquitous woes on a personal level. When his sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) opens a window on her traumatic past, Maurice and the rest of the family feel the harrowing draft.

We have been made privy to what’s coming. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) a young, black optometrist who has just lost her adoptive parents, decides to track down her birth mother. After procuring the files, she discovers what seems to be a serious error: Her mother is white. That mother happens to be Cynthia, who leads a rather depressing, contentious existence in London’s East End with her morose daughter, a road sweeper called Roxanne (Phyllis Logan).

"Secrets & Lies," which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, reveals itself detail by searing detail. The movie is an extended, multilayered revelation, and you don’t get the full, complex picture until the final scene. So, it’s best to leave off here. But among the film’s absorbing discoveries are Cynthia’s complicated, surprising reaction to Hortense’s news; and the gnawing moral question of whether to reveal this newfound relationship to Cynthia’s white family.

In his plays, television satires and such films as "High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked," Leigh has probed, twitted and exposed the underbelly of English society. His filmmaking method, in which he withholds the story’s grand design from his performers so they can undergo the same experiences and surprises of their characters, has consistently reaped success. "Secrets & Lies" is no exception. The performers, particularly Blethyn, Spall and Jean-Baptiste, are breathtakingly vulnerable, as they undergo the unpredictable experiences the story throws at them.

Leigh, a master of his own stylistic reinvention, never lets us categorize him. There are elements of humor, sweetness, cruelty and directness in all his films. But the mix is always different. "Secrets & Lies" doesn’t emphasize the grim seriousness of "Naked," nor the ironic, tittery quality of "Life Is Sweet" and "High Hopes," but it contains all those qualities. It’s also more emotional, tear-inducing and compassionate than its predecessors. However, the writer/director’s quintessentially lighthearted touch is always waiting to make small, strategic strikes. Complaining at one point that she doesn’t know her daughter’s boyfriend very well, Cynthia declares, "I wouldn’t know ’im if ’e stood up in me soup." That’s the great thing about this movie. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it surprises you by standing up in the middle of your soup.

SECRETS & LIES (R) — Contains sexual situations and profanity.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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