Whatever had afflicted me the past couple of days did nothing to me today. Not only was I wide awake for all turns, every gaze, and each word spoken by the actors onscreen, I was enthralled. Nothing would foil me in absorbing every morsel of delectable onscreen interaction.
Such was to be expected. Secrets & Lies is written and directed by Mike Leigh, whom I’ve come to regard as one of my favorite film directors. Something about the way he creates his characters and how they interact with each other buzzes the passion juices seeded in my cranium. Not every film he’s produced has been a master craft of exhilaration, yet there’s not a single picture I’ve seen from him that’s dipped below “pretty good.” And the performances! Oh, how wondrous.
“With both her adoptive parents now dead, a Black optometrist decides to make contact with her birth mother, only to find out that she is white.”
To reiterate on a point I’ve likely written several times, I’ve come to a point in my life were I prefer following stories of a more grounded nature, more personal. People will always clamor for their big-budget blockbusters of fantastical proportions, and they’ll always be the more sought after option. As a youth, I grew spiteful of this “escapist” mentality and turned my back on it. Now, it’s just a different flavor. I don’t personally like it too much, but tastes are tastes.
A taste of Mike Leigh is somewhat bitter, yet organically produced to be invigorating almost subconsciously. From the films I’ve seen among the catalogue, a large point of emphasis is on empathy and respect. Really good drama, those that are more attuned to my own taste, feature characters that are imperfect, that have made mistakes and struggle to live with them. Or not. A character study—a human study.
Easy as it would be to say, “Drama is suspense! Drama is romance! Drama is nefarious!” those are simply exemplifiers to what creates their effectiveness in execution. Secrets & Lies doesn’t have much romance nor is it all that nefarious, at least from my perspective. One could argue that it is in some ways. But suspense is definitely prevalent, especially near the end. What creates it are the genuine nature of the characters.
There is a great line near the end spoken by Maurice, played wonderfully by Timothy Spall: “She can’t help it; she never had enough love.” His awareness of such a fact is indicative of the love he had growing up, which cannot be shared by every character. Seeing the lives lived by these characters, as well as their decisions and interaction with one another, can be boiled down at least to a minimal degree by this one point of love.
Love is just one point, too! There are a great deal of themes present within that could be analyzed. The relationship between child and parent; communication with your loved ones; how love is present and is presented in daily life; how information can affect those unrelated to whom it is engaged with. So many little things pop up in every scene that can be dissected and analyzed.
It wouldn’t be a Mike Leigh film without great performances, either. Spall already got a short shoutout in a prior paragraph—he’s not always the focus, but his quiet gentleness is captivating. Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia is an emotional powerhouse of tragedy. How desperately she wishes for control, for something to be proud of. Every utterance of “sweetheart” and “darling” is like a recording of what she wants to hear directed at herself. I hoped she would find some measure of happiness.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is an interesting case, because her character is rather reserved. This gives her so few opportunities to really exemplify herself, though if the goal was to appear more put together, both professionally and emotionally, than her peers, she was a rock. Though saying she’s a “rock” is sort of ironic given she comes across as a frightened bird in many scenes; the way she says “Yeah…” is, like her mother, rehearsed for times necessary.
I wouldn’t say she was bad, except she was nowhere near as stellar as most of the rest of the cast. Even Lesley Manville, who shared one scene wit her that spanned roughly ten minutes, outshined her. I only wonder if her distilled nature, at least by comparison to the rest of the cast, made for a stronger whole.
Small nitpicks: Was sort of dull near the midpoint when a lot of things were still in flux. Many of these moral prods didn’t really click until near the end point, especially when the mother-daughter pair began to meet up. Was also somewhat hard to understand the thicker accents of characters near the beginning. Could eventually understand it well enough by the twenty-minute mark.
What a lovely film. Up there among Leigh’s best, competing with All or Nothing for my personal favorite. Great performances, great themes, and an incredibly complex puzzle of humanity that I adore. These are the films I watch film for, outside of the occasional big-budget sci-fi epics that speak to my moodier self. Incredibly recommended if anything I’ve said sounds appealing.
Final Score: 9/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
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