Secrets and Lies (1996)

Dir. Mike Leigh. Starring Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall

I’m not the world’s foremost Mike Leigh expert or anything, but I was amazed when he did something I’d never seen him do before in a movie: he rushed. The movie’s final confrontation is like coming downstairs, missing one, stumbling, but adjusting in the last moment before one falls. For two hours, Secrets and Lies juggles the Purley siblings, Maurice (Spall) and Cynthia (Blethyn), their families, and of course Hortense (Jean-Baptiste) with aplomb; no one so much as nicks a heel on the stairs. Hortense’s investigatory loneliness is given shape alongside Maurice’s grasping solitude. Monica (Phyllis Logan) and Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) both resent the people putting them up and their embarrassingly transparent attempts to reach them. And Cynthia bursts into tears with every “sweetheart” she utters, not fragile so much as flimsy, easily buffeted. The movie takes time to watch Hortense give an eye exam to a sprightly young girl, gives Maurice space to take his pictures and fend off the former owner of his studio, Stuart (Ron Cook), and lets Roxanne sweep the trash off the sidewalk. It watches Monica clutch her stomach in pain and yell Britishisms like, “Since when was hooverin’ a spectator sport!” (It lacks the refinement of “I do think you’re being perfectly beastly, but this is no time for a family rumpus,” but it does in a pinch.) Even before the explosion, the movie carves out a little space to observe previously separated characters together. Monica is all too pleased to take Cynthia and Roxanne on a little tour of her house; upon finding the garage, Cynthia finds a new car. “What was wrong with the old one?” she asks. Nothing, Monica replies, maybe a little nicked by that remark but not so much as she is put out by finding every toilet seat up in the house. Maurice teases Roxanne endlessly, although it’s obvious that it’s affectionate and even more obvious that it’s a form which Roxanne responds positively to; it’s almost a miracle to watch Roxanne respond positively to anything at this point in the movie, which makes her rapport with Maurice that much more endearing. In other words: this is the kind of movie that I thought was guaranteed not to put a toe out of line, and yet it does.

It was inevitable that Cynthia would reveal that Hortense was her long-lost daughter not because the movie needs her to but because Cynthia has no gift for keeping anything internalized. Her conversations with Roxanne are all tremendously frank, which Roxanne usually copes with by leaving dramatically to see her taciturn boyfriend, Paul (Lee Ross). She weeps at the drop of a hat. Her opinions rattle out quickly and without decorum; when Hortense calls her to reveal her relationship with Cynthia, Cynthia almost immediately tells her not to come see her. The fact that Cynthia is trying to protect Roxanne from this secret and not really trying to chase Hortense away takes some time to reveal; Cynthia categorically denies that Hortense is her daughter until she suddenly remembers in a tea shop. Of all the characters in this story, only Cynthia and Hortense seem willing to connect with someone outside their immediate sphere. Even minor characters like Stuart can’t stay away from their wounds, can’t stop picking at themselves long enough to let the scabs form properly. Hortense’s curiosity and Cynthia’s motherliness drive them to engage with one another, to seek out something new, but so too do their situations. Hortense has, at the beginning of the movie, lost both of her parents. Cynthia never sees her brother or her sister-in-law, has no friends to speak of, and cuts slits in boxes for a living. They have nothing to lose by finding one another across the gulf of many currents which has separated them for decades.

The question of what there is to lose is primarily brought out by Maurice, and there lies the film’s misstep, only seconds in a movie of over 140 minutes. After Cynthia reveals that Hortense is her daughter while Hortense is regaining her composure in the powder room, the party erupts. Roxanne, surprisingly, is more hurt by the fact that Maurice and Monica knew than that her mother has hidden the existence of a half-sister for decades. None of this is a problem. Roxanne leaves the party, presaged many times by how she storms away from problems or discomfiting moments rather than weathering them. Maurice brings her back, with a little assist from the previously mute Paul. Cynthia explains what happened. She and Monica spar, and then Spall—in the middle of a scene which features some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen from him—drops a bomb that we’ve guessed at already. “Secrets and lies!” he cries.

Monica, it turns out, is infertile; the woman who is no wife to him, according to Cynthia, because she hasn’t given him children, is reduced to sobs. Cynthia goes to her and Monica doesn’t push her away. On paper I’m sure it works, but as presented here it doesn’t fit. Monica’s infertility has been a quiet subplot throughout the movie, but it has been third-string in comparison to Cynthia and Hortense’s reunion and Maurice’s quiet sadness. We begin with Cynthia and Hortense and what that means to the family in general and to Roxanne specifically. We progress to Maurice, who has for my money the most moving lines of the movie. I spend my life trying to make people happy, he says, and it’s true. His photography business is all about making other people happy, whether it’s shooting pets and babies, or weddings, or proof of injury for insurance. But the three people I love the most, he screams, I can’t make happy—they all hate each other. It is a statement of profound impotence, a cry for help from a man in a solo job who comes home to a wife who doesn’t want to see him, whose sister lives in the same city and who is practically a stranger anymore, whose niece is memorialized by a picture of her from ten or more years before. It is as strong a moment as the conference over tea that Hortense and Cynthia share, itself probably the shining moment of the film. But it is eliminated by a third rail; we aren’t given the time to cope with this before Phyllis’ infertility comes to light, and so one moment is skipped for another. The movie is already over two hours. At that point it matters less if it wants to stay with one moment and carry on to another, yet Secrets and Lies hurries at just the wrong moment and muddles what should be three sublime revelations. Each one, while awkward or slimy to the touch, turns out to be about gain rather than loss. If Cynthia and Hortense understand that first, then Maurice’s exclamation is the amplification which everyone in the family needs to hear.

No one has to work alone more than Jean-Baptiste in this movie, and her performance stands out in a movie where everyone’s performance is inimitable. More than anyone else, Jean-Baptiste stares at phones, bounces her ideas off of basically anonymous friends, and ambles about. More than anything else, Hortense seems well-intentioned. She wants to know who her birth mother is, but she was willing to wait until both of her parents had died. She wears black all the way through the movie to signify in an old-fashioned way her mourning. She is sympathetic, or at least tolerant, of Cynthia’s weepy shock at the outset of their talks together. The scene in the tea shop stands out as much for her steely eyes as it does for Blethyn’s gelatin swaying. Jean-Baptiste without the smile is a fundamentally different person than Jean-Baptiste with it, and she does not smile much then. Perhaps she’s a little hurt that Cynthia firmly rejects her at first (No offense, Cynthia says weakly, but I’d have remembered sleeping with a black man…), which is unpromising, and then her fits of tears in the mercifully empty cafe seem to resound off of every table leg and chair back. Jean-Baptiste plays more amiable later in the film, especially when Hortense comes to Roxanne’s birthday; without saying anything, she puts up a good show because she recognizes that this fraught little deception she’s putting on is a sign of faith in Cynthia, who probably hasn’t been this adventurous since Hortense’s father knocked her up. The smile comes back when she and Roxanne are talking in Maurice’s backyard—it’s the kindest smile Rushbrook has in the entire picture—and one recognizes the generosity in her. Roxanne is trying to make nice after a frankly ugly beginning, and Hortense agrees to come out with her half-sister sometime. The film ends on that optimistic note as Cynthia comes outside to see them, an almost mirrored image of the end of Life is Sweet. 

This is one of Spall’s absolute best acting performances; he’s certainly acting less than he was in Mr. Turner, which he won Best Actor for at Cannes, but I’m not sure it’s a weaker one on the whole. The movie does not throw itself at this particular subplot, though it might well have: there’s a sense that he and Monica got more than they were supposed to from an insurance payout, or in any event more than Cynthia did. The result is that Monica can buy a new car just because, that he lives in a nice suburban house, and that Cynthia and Roxanne inhabit a working-class milieu that, if we’re honest, may have already gone extinct. The movie lets us wonder just how hurt Maurice is, or at least lets us consider the trade-off that he’s made. In exchange for a successful business, one that Stuart returns to and is immediately envious of, Maurice gets to lose his family for years, maybe a decade, without anything to show for it but photographs of other people’s weddings. It’s why that scene with Cook’s Stuart seems so essential to me, one of those brilliant one-scene performances that lends something ineffable to the picture. It’s the closest we get to seeing Maurice really and truly angry. (I’d argue that his meltdown at the tail-end of the party is less anger and more hurt.) Stuart—stubbly, pouring booze into his tea, unkempt and hoarse—accuses Maurice of essentially carpetbagging his old business, all but stealing the fruit of his labors. Maurice, raising himself up to his full height, withstands the long index finger that Stuart never quite puts in his sternum. No, Maurice says, I built this up by myself. I got these clients myself. I do the shoots myself. If not for Hortense, it’s not impossible to imagine that in ten or fifteen years, Maurice might be returning to the studio after his own sojourn to the edges of the globe and pointing a finger at some younger man with new cars and a house all in blue.

3 thoughts on “Secrets and Lies (1996)

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