'Secrets and Lies' arouses emotions, stands out among films
"Secrets & Lies," an emotional orgy of a film, meticulously depicts the depression and dissasfaction of a family living in London and the ulitimate tightening of their bonds to each other.
Acclaimed British writer and director Mike Leigh has become well-known for depicting working class stories, tightly charged with emotion yet tempered with humor.
"Secrets & Lies," winner of the Cannes Film Festival's top picture and best actress awards, abounds with a serious intensity. This ardent approach is becoming increasingly rare in recent releases when even independent films are becoming frenzied patchworks of violence and fast cuts.
Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a young black, emotionally reserved optometrist who decides to search for her birth mother when her adopted mother passes away. Hortense feels that all children pick their mothers to teach them how to better cope with future lives, and this hope drives her in her search.
To Hortense's surprise and perplexity, she discovers that her birth mother is white and lives in a penurious section of London in a small apartment.
Leigh treats Hortense's search with a certain delicacy and understanding. This film's seriousness contrasts with other recent interpretations of the search for adopted parents such as Ben Stiller's frenetic and preposterous "Flirting with Disaster."
Her mother Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a desperately lonely and unhappy factory worker who lives with Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), her cynical and spiteful daughter who never stops tightening her face into an angry scowl.
The apartment's rundown interior contrasts markedly with the carefully decorated suburban home of Cynthia's younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall).
The sad-eyed Maurice is a sucessful photographer who puts his heart and soul into his work. But his marriage has declined because his wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan) is unable to bear children. Although Cynthia raised Maurice since he was a young boy after their mother died, they have grown more estranged and hardly see each other.
Yet the family grows closer through a series of emotional epiphanies as Hortense and Cynthia meet and establish the beginnings of a mother/daughter relationship. This becomes evident during Roxanne's twenty-first birthday party held at Maurice's house when all of the family's secrets and lies are revealed.
Leigh crafts the story through details -- most notably, the faces and mannerisms of his main characters. Leigh employs a bare-bones cinematography which captures all of the action in medium shot and lingers on the faces and expressions of the characters.
In his lens, the emotional repression of each character manifests itself, and their universal dissatisfaction is painstakingly drawn out.
Inside this tightly framed and fastidious shooting style, the performances of the actors are able to come to life and light up the screen. As Cynthia, Blethyn won a best actress award at Cannes for her role as a emotionally distraught woman who is desperately searching for love and companionship.
Cynthia is a bleeding sore of feeling -- she breaks down into a crying, unhappy mess at numerous instances and refers to her family longingly as "sweetheart" and "darling" in crooning entreatments for love.
As Hortense, the black daughter who ultimately cares for Cynthia, Baptiste gives a strong performance. Her earnestness is lightened by her propensity to break into infectious, humourous faces.
In addition, Spall does an inspired job as a somber and stoic photographer who ultimately breaks down during Roxanne's party and begs his family members to stop being cruel to each other.
The movie's stone-faced and serious mood sometimes bogs the film down and the audience members can't help but feel uncomfortable in the face of such raw emotion.
Leigh is able to keep the film's intensity at this almost untenable level by using long-lasting shots which include a whole scene without cutting, in the same vein as Hitchcock's "Rope" or Yasujiro Ozu's Japanese films of manners.
In "Secrets & Lies," this style has moments that approach the brilliance of these famous directors. When Hortense and Cynthia first meet in a cafe, Leigh uses a shot, which lasts many minutes, of both women facing the camera beside each other and talking about Hortense's birth, unable to look at each other because their tumult of emotions.
Another stirring monment is the extended shot of the whole family eating and passing foods around a table during Roxanne's party.
Through Leigh's lens, the exchanging of food and passing of comments appears as almost a symbolic dance where the interrelations of the family become apparent.
Although "Secret & Lies" deals very seriously with its subject matters, it also contains moments of irony and humor which help make the movie more watchable. It treats the rebellious antics of Roxanne and the unusual characters who come to Maurice's studio very whimsically, providing moments of exquisite comedy.
In the end, Leigh shapes his characters so effectively that the appeal of the film lies largely in people-watching. It is the interesting faces and expressions of the characters which draw you into the emotional rollercoaster of the plot and provide humor.
"Secret & Lies" stands out from the music-video style of recent movies and works very subtley and slowly. If you allow yourself to get drawn into Leigh's delicately-crafted world, "Secret & Lies" will capture your attention and arouse your emotions.
'Secrets and Lies' is currently showing at the Nugget Theater.