It’s rather puzzling that I don’t appear to have ever mentioned seeing Secrets and Lies, the one Mike Leigh both my wife and I enjoyed on first viewing ˗ and watched again last night. It was made in 1996, before I was blogging, and perhaps I've talked about it in one of my older journals, which exist only in print, and aren't easily searched.
The story is about factory-worker Cynthia (played by Brenda Blethyn) a fortyish mother of a sour-faced 21-year-old illegitimate daughter, Roxanne (Clare Rushbrook), and, as it turns out, also the mother of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist in her late twenties. Hortense was adopted at birth and never seen by Cynthia (who was only 16 at the time). Cynthia is not surprisingly shocked when she discovers that her first illegitimate child is black, and has been brought up by black parents (both now deceased).
A second set of related characters, Maurice and Monica (Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan) live out a sour marriage. He's a photographer and is also Cynthia's brother. But Cynthia and Monica don't get on so he doesn't often see his sister. Roxanne has a boyfriend, a seemingly-drippy scaffolder (who redeems himself with one line towards the end of the movie). And the eighth main character (though she only appears infrequently) is Maurice's assistant, Jane (Elizabeth Berrington)
Second time around, the movie seemed somewhat overlong: there are some irrelevant scenes (in particular, the one where the former owner of the photography business turns up drunk, out of the blue, utterly negative about life), but the acting is terrific, and Leigh allows his actors just to get on and play out scenes without filmic fuss. Thus the long scene where Cynthia and Hortense get to know each other is played with the camera square on, no distraction of extras in the background, and just two actors doing a wonderful several-minute scene. Leigh does the same thing with all eight main actors later, at the birthday barbeque, when the camera just watches them zipping dialogue back and forth and doing all sorts of business. It’s a brilliant scene, perfect cinema, in spite of there being no camera movement.
Both Spall and Blethyn were new to me when we first saw this, and both have gone on to much bigger things. But every actor in the movie is excellent, right down to the innumerable people being photographed in Maurice's studio - a number of whom appear for only a few seconds. (Included among these are some quite familiar faces.)
The movie is quite dark for much of the time, though there's plenty of comedy within that, but by the time we've reached the end, with its wonderful uncovering of all the secrets, and its reconciliations, a huge corner has been turned into the light.
Leigh's well-known approach to filmmaking of allowing the actors to create their characters from scratch works superbly here, though obviously there has been much refining in the finished film. But this method means that the actors have thoroughly inhabited their characters and bring a great deal of subtlety to even the smallest of scenes.