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Human Right Down to the Heart

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1996

Though blood relations are his forte, British filmmaker Mike Leigh embraces the family of man in "Secrets & Lies," a magnificent melodrama that draws both tears and laughter from the everyday give-and-take of seemingly ordinary souls.

In his careful hands, however, the ordinary is no such thing. Every person becomes one of God's extraordinary creations, a notion magnified by the writer-director's obsession with dramatic realism. There are no hidden meanings in his stories, which recall the British "kitchen sink" school of the early '60s. The difference is that Leigh removes the stopper and lets the dirty water go down the drain.

In "Secrets & Lies," the characters may fuss and falter, but they do sort things through and they do find their way back home. Though this sounds as simplistic as a fairy tale, the path through the thicket of slights and grievances could hardly be more complex, yet seemingly more natural.

Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn), the film's central character, would go unnoticed aboard "A Streetcar Named Desire" as long as she kept her mouth shut. While she isn't quite a cockney Blanche Dubois, she does shares the tragic belle's fragility and tendency to get hysterical. Rebuffed by her younger brother, his stuck-up wife and her own surly daughter, Cynthia has all but evaporated into a puddle of tears when a long-lost daughter musters up the courage to phone.

On the other end of the line is Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). A London optometrist as polished as the lenses she prescribes, Hortense has decided to get in touch with her birth mother now that her adoptive parents have died. Though Cynthia is distressed by her call, Hortense manages to talk her into at least meeting her at a train station a few days later.

Cynthia -- shoulders slumped, hair in disarray -- insists there must be some terrible mistake when a stylish young black woman introduces herself as her daughter. Over tea, a suppressed memory surfaces and the shaken Cynthia realizes that Hortense is indeed her child. This awkward first meeting leads to Cynthia's incredibly moving rebirth and eventually to the unification of the entire brood.

As usual, Leigh honed his scenario in improvisational rehearsals designed to keep the actors believable and the story unpredictable. Under control of a major studio, the film might well have become a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for the '90s. But this story has more to do with classism -- that perennial British obsession -- than racism.

Cynthia, whose second daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), is a sour, slovenly street sweeper, has the daughter she always dreamed of in Hortense. When the family gets together for Roxanne's 21st birthday, Cynthia can't stop herself from bragging about Hortense's apartment "with a mortgage," her car and her education. The one thing she doesn't boast of is Hortense's lineage.

Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste are a joy to behold in tandem, but Blethyn's endearing portrait is transcendent. Timothy Spall, who played a flaky gourmet chef in "Life Is Sweet," becomes the voice of reason in the role of Cynthia's younger brother. A decent bloke, he's been drawn into a nouveau riche existence by his wife (Phyllis Logan), a woman grown barren in her leisure.

All ends happily, yet not sappily, thanks to Leigh's eye for the sheer silliness of the human condition. As Cynthia says to her new daughter: "You gotta laugh, ain't ya, sweetheart? Else you'll cry."

Secrets & Lies is rated R for language.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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