Bleak, hopeful 'Secrets'

November 08, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Mike Leigh's previous films are "Bleak Moments," "High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet" and "Naked," and so you could say that his new "Secrets & Lies," which opens today at the Charles, is a kind of summing up: It's crammed, cheek to jowl, with bleak moments, high hopes, sweetness and naked emotion.

Another dysfunctional family saga, this one is set over a few days in London's East End and one of its middle-class suburbs, where a sister and a brother live, their homes a reflection of their places in the world. Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) has a drab little slum house, which she shares in isolated frustration with her grouchy daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Cynthia runs cutting machine in a box factory; Roxanne is a street sweeper. The future looks to be more of the past: dingy, cramped, impoverished, bitter.

Her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), on the other hand, has a home that could be in Columbia, amid grass, open space and grills: He is a suburban portrait taker, a photographer of unflagging professional optimism (which hides his private melancholy) and prosperity. His wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) is childless, subverting her energies into ardent home redecorating. Of these four adults it can be fairly said: They all hate each other and they all hate themselves.

Enter the complication. The complication comes in the form of a phone call from out of the blue, which Cynthia answers one day to find the person on the other end is her daughter, whom we have watched tracking her through the maze of bureaucracy. That is, the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 15; the daughter she never saw or held; the daughter whose very existence she has repressed. Imagine Cynthia's surprise when she meets Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and learns she's black. Imagine the family surprise, when the news is broken at a birthday party Maurice throws for Roxanne.

If it sounds like a variation of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," except that it's "Guess Who's in the Family Now?," it's not. This is England, remember: The racial gulf isn't charged with centuries of rage and fear; the new relatives don't have the fire next time to contend with, but the more reasonable obstacles of re-adjustment and confusion; they get used to the fact that each has a different skin color pretty quickly.

Instead, the thrust of "Secrets & Lies" is passionately intimate: Hortense represents to Cynthia something of a new beginning, possibly even a rescue from her own deep sense of self-loathing. For Hortense is everything that poor Roxanne is not: She's educated, successful, well-adjusted, prosperous, healthy. She's clearly a way for the mother to re-examine her own life and understand that she's not the utter failure she thought she was, if she could issue such progeny. But naturally, Roxanne is further embittered, poor Maurice and Monica are stunned, and over the long course of the party, all the nasty toxins of the title come spilling out.

The movie is far more intimately recorded than an American film on a similar subject; it follows people into bathrooms, or into their lonely bedrooms; its sensibility is not of professional story manipulation but of reality. The acting, particularly Blethyn's performance, transcends art: It simply is, tears, mucus and all.

It suffers from slow going in its first 40 minutes, particularly to American ears which cannot penetrate the argot of the British working class, and particularly as we struggle to grasp the relationships within the family. But once Hortense and her mother meet, the movie takes off and becomes a brilliant study of yearning.

'Secrets & Lies'

Starring Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

Directed by Mike Leigh

Released by October Films

Rated R (language, sexual intimacy)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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