Nobody can make you feel so alive when the end credits roll as Mike Leigh.
Mike Leigh may have hit his commercial peak 20 years ago, with his 1996 film Secrets & Lies, but it’s merely one spike in a healthy career. Every few years, the sensitive Brit returns with a new masterpiece, whether perfecting his well-established approach to domestic drama (Another Year) or breaking new ground, as in the brilliant, unconventional biography Mr. Turner (2014), which featured Timothy Spall’s best performance, gorgeous (and, for the first time) digital photography by Dick Pope and a boldly atonal score by Gary Yershon (all three have worked with Leigh for years). So what made Secrets & Lies such a roaring success? Nominated for five Academy Awards, it’s by far Leigh’s most-seen film in the U.S., and it’s objectively one of his most approachable; where Leigh’s early work is barbed and often bleakly funny, there’s a warmth that radiates through his films that finally comes to the forefront in Secrets & Lies and overpowers his satirical sensibilities.
And, of course, the mid-‘90s were a perfect time for American audiences to be introduced to Mike Leigh. At this point, having worked in theatre, television and film for decades, he’d established a first-rate company of actors and crew members who were comfortable working together. While his amazing, early films for the BBC are necessarily limited by the nature of television production, his collaboration with cinematographer Dick Pope in the ‘90s was starting to yield some stunning results (this partnership continues to this day, and has only gotten better). As time went on, familiar faces from Leigh’s stable of actors stayed loyal and deepened their working relationships. At the same time, the market for foreign films and smaller domestic films was growing. Thanks in part to Miramax, movies like The Piano, Like Water for Chocolate and The Crying Game became highly successful, but the landscape was much wider than that, and people were more open to seeing small-scale human dramas that say something about life.
Secrets & Lies is also, simply, a great film. Its virtues are readily apparent, almost enough to obscure the care that went into its construction. In a way, that’s one goal of naturalism: to remove any sense of artifice and convince the viewer of the reality of the story, characters, and setting. But while the film may appear shapeless at first, as we watch an ensemble of characters going about their lives and occasionally bumping up against each other, the themes are absolutely clear, and Leigh’s dramatic construction is considered and precise.
This is a film with a rich and evolving relationship with its characters. Many of them put on masks to hide their weakness or their pain. Others have distorted images of themselves and of each other. Crucially, Leigh introduces his characters in such a way that the viewer’s first impression gets challenged over time. Early in the film, Maurice (Timothy Spall) comes home from work to his suddenly, inexplicably belligerent wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan). Each of Morris’s questions and attempts at conversation are met with hostility and annoyance. With the source of this marital friction yet to be revealed, his reaction tells all. Spall’s face—his greatest instrument—conveys the defeat, sadness, patience, and compassion of someone used to these episodes and understanding of their cause. This couple has a secret—Monica’s infertility—that threatens to destroy their relationship. At first, Leigh keeps it a secret from the audience, too, letting the characters’ behavior tell the story. They may be able to fool their friends and family, their perfect middle-class veneer creating a picture of contentment, but in private, their open wound of a marriage is exposed for the viewer.
There’s a similar interplay between impression and reality—between an image and the truth underneath—in the introduction of Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), Maurice’s niece. She’s first glimpsed in a photograph (taken by Maurice) on the mantle as a grinning, bright-faced moppet in close-up. This throws adult-Roxanne’s sullen, combative disposition into sharp relief, both for her uncle and for the viewer. It’s not hard to understand her frustration, however, in light of her mother (and Maurice’s sister), Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, riffing on an older version of her character from Grown-Ups). Cynthia, in contrast to all the other characters, has no way of hiding her emotions. She’s perpetually on the verge of tears, and constantly breaks down in tears. She’s single, works in a factory, fights constantly with her daughter and never sees her brother. Blethyn gives a brave performance, totally absent of vanity, as this tragicomic figure. The viewer must go on a journey with her, from irritation and revulsion to compassion and understanding. As fragile and weepy and—sorry—shrill as she is, it’s a performance based in authentic emotion, not affectation.
Cynthia has a secret of her own that further explains her sorry state. For a while, it’s unclear how the story of Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a black optometrist, will intersect with the members of the working class Purley family. In the wake of her adoptive mother’s death, Hortense sets out in search of her birth mother, who, according to the adoption agency is white. While Hortense seems comfortable with who she is—despite admitting that she never felt she knew her mom—this shatters her sense of self. Still, she pushes forward, and calls Cynthia to arrange a meeting and finally confront her birth mother.
This is part of what gives this film shape. Once all of this is established, everything seems to be moving toward the inevitable reunion, even as the other characters circle around their own problems. This culminates, about halfway through, in an extraordinary two-shot of Hortense and Cynthia meeting at a restaurant, the former intrigued but quietly disappointed, the latter drowning in tears. The scene mostly plays out in a single take, with the actors controlling the pace and rhythm. While Leigh is thought of as an actors’ director, the way he builds up to this scene (and to the wrenching party sequence at the end, where Hortense is introduced to the family) provides a framework that allows theme to emerge naturally. It’s really a perfect balance between the freewheeling improvisation of certain John Cassavetes films and the more intentional formalism of some of Leigh’s peers, such as Ken Loach.
But no level of analysis can do justice to the pure, raw power of Secrets & Lies—or to its few delightful divertissements, like the montages in Maurice’s photography studio showing a colorful variety of his customers having their likeness taken. The effect of this film can be summarized in one shot from early on, when Cynthia, seeing Maurice for the first time after an unspecified interval, breaks down in his arms. As she buries her face in his chest, the camera slowly pushes in on Maurice’s face. He goes through the same series of emotions as the viewer as Cynthia carries on and on: annoyance, then sympathy, then, when she’s done, annoyance once again. It’s not the kind of shot that calls attention to itself, but is designed to capture a real human response to real human emotion in the purest way possible. Because he gives so much to his characters, and demands his actors do the same, nobody can make you feel so alive when the end credits roll as Mike Leigh.