Friday, January 30, 2009
It takes a certain amount of gumption to try to raise funding for a film and gather a cast without a single word committed to a page, but Mike Leigh's made a noble go of it for three decades. He made is first film in 1972, and didn't manage to make other (expressly for the screen, that is) until 1988. Just reading about him makes me curious, but I became about as big a fan as a single film can create when I saw Leigh's superb Happy-Go-Lucky at the tail end of last year. Perhaps the reason it took me so long to actually watch another one of his films is that I had trouble picking between them. Now, I'm not one for fate, but I got my copy of this film in my Netflix shipment today, and before I popped it in, I remembered that yesterday Roger Ebert added a new essay to his Great Movies collection. I brought up his site and what should be his entry but Secrets & Lies? Figuring that could only be a good sign, I dove right in.
And what a find! Mike Leigh's Secret & Lies is a brutal look into a family whose decades of buried problems will explode at the 21st birthday of its youngest member. The film starts as a young black woman attends the funeral of her adoptive mother. Hortense Cumberbatch (the only way that name could be any more British is if her nickname was somehow "Union Jack"), an optometrist, decides to track down her biological mother, though why we're never really told, a minor but noticeable flaw.
Her mother is Cynthia Purley, played as a tearful bundle of nerves by Brenda Blethyn. Cynthia lives in a ratty town house with her 20-year old daughter Roxanne, a layabout who works as a street sweeper. When Hortense rings her, Cynthia tearfully hangs up in fear, then takes her second call and agrees to meet her abandoned daughter. We see the first piece of the title's derivation in their meeting, as Cynthia initially refuses to believe Hortense could be her daughter, because she's never slept with a black man. Then some nugget of deeply buried memory finally bubbles through decades of repression and a look of tragicomic revelation flashes across Blethyn's face. Leigh's method of improvising a script with his actors is on full display in this scene; these two characters are working their way into each other because that's what the actors did for weeks before shooting.
Cynthia has a brother Maurice (the great Timothy Spall) a photographer trapped in a cold marriage with his wife Monica. The scenes in which Maurice sets his clients in poses and coaxes smiles out them seem to exist thematically only to set up an explosive line later in the film, but they add some humor to the proceedings. In contrast to his sister's crowded little home, Maurice and his wife life in a spacious, clean home and have no children. Cynthia despairs over the fact that Maurice hasn't called her in two years, and blames Monica, a fair assumption.
Maurice misses his sister as well, and invites her and his niece over for Roxanne's 21st birthday. Cynthia brings along "her friend" Hortense, and the stage is set for a familial explosion. The party plays out like an intense hybrid of Hitchcock and soap opera. Roxanne brings her boyfriend Paul, a man thoroughly cowed by his pushy lover. He looks terrified and withdrawn throughout the party, as if he somehow expects what's about to happen. At last, Cynthia can't help herself, and spills her secret: this is my daughter.
Like a domino tipped over, Cynthia's admission brings out secret after lie. Leigh's characters, in a thoroughly interesting move, never bring up Hortense's race, something that especially surprised me considering how trashy Roxanne is. The characters simply have too many important things to work out to give a damn about something so trivial. For Roxanne, the simple knowledge that she has a half-sister is enough to send her into a rage.
After details start flying out, Maurice finally snaps. He screams "I've spent my entire life trying to make people happy!" and you know he isn't just referring to his job. In only a few lines, Spall absolutely brings the house down and, though this is Blethyn's show through and through, he steals a moment of spotlight just for him. After all the dirty laundry is aired, we see the family start over. If the ending is incongruously upbeat, it's because they've all worked through a perverse sort of group therapy and have nowhere to go but it.
This is only the second Mike Leigh film I've seen, but I see a pattern already. His films operate with characters who stand outside real life but, because of his workshop method of script-writing, the movies nevertheless have just a dab of verité about them. They're almost like a mixture of Werner Herzog and John Cassavetes as filtered through a British soap opera. It's a testament both to the writing and Blethyn's skill that her constant state of tearful breakdown never becomes repetitive nor unintentional funny; instead, she puts in a completely affecting performance. I don't know if Secrets & Lies has an underlying message--apart from the overt comment on how we are so protective of our secrets that we even close ourselves off from those who know them--but I don't care, because I feel as if I've gotten to know this bizarre little family over the course of 2 hours.