Casual Cruelties: Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

Tonight I watched "Secrets and Lies" (1996), which is the first of Mike Leigh's films I have seen. I have tickets to see his play, "Two Thousand Years," this summer, so I approached this encounter with his work with interest, knowing that this was supposed to among his most accessible films. There is something fundamentally theatrical about the way the space between the actors is charged with layered meanings in "Secrets and Lies," particularly in the stronger first half of the film, when Leigh relies less on action and more on the potential energy of falsehoods long forgotten.

The film is a extensive meditation on the perils of fertility, set in the least sexual social landscape imaginable: the cool, airless rooms of (sub)urban London. Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), while engaged in a lengthily destructive relationship with one illegitimate daughter, is suddenly contacted by another daughter, Hortense, whom she had given up for adoption years before, sight unseen. When Cynthia shows up at Holborn Station for her first encounter with this long lost daughter, she realizes with some shock that, although she herself is white, Hortense is black.

The core of the movie is this exploration of how total strangers, with no sense of common history or experience, react when suddenly thrown into the most intimate of all possible human relationships. Leigh's particular skill involves excavating the infinite meanings perceptible in the details of everyday life. At first the mundane quality of the lives he is examining is unsettling, and even a little dull, but we are gradually wooed into the minor dramas that unfold with the appearance of every peripheral character. Cynthia's younger brother is a photographer, and each customer who appears in his studio performs a little masterwork of theatrical density. One woman has been in a devastating, career-ending accident, and the camera lingers on her lengthily as she sends the photographer a withering look in response to his conventional, double-edged expressions of sympathy.

"You can tell a lot about people by looking at their eyes," Hortense explains primly when asked about her career as an optometrist. Indeed all the most evocative moments in this film are filled with glances, outraged and sympathetic, averted and unreturned, but seldom affectionate and never, ever amorous. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense is the most delicate wielder of the glance of any of the main characters, turning in a detailed, empathetic performance as a woman of superhuman patience thrown suddenly into a circus of inadequately suppressed familial pain.

The climax of the film, however, takes an overwrought turn towards the histrionic, betraying the aesthetic of minutiae for the melodramatic structural necessity of balancing Cynthia excessive fecundity with her sister-in-law's infertility. This is a minor flaw, though, in a otherwise finely wrought meditation on the casual cruelties of family life.

"Secrets and Lies" - ****

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