Secrets and Lies

In spite of the fact that his bracingly dark and occasionally jarringly violent Naked is one of my all-time favorite films, I’m still generally unfamiliar with Mike Leigh’s work. Leigh continues to work in the British “kitchen sink drama” style of the late 50s and 60s (see Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar) depicting the dramas present in the lives of Britain’s working class – unglamorous and unromantic but unusually moving portraits of the individual joys and sadness everyday people.

Leigh’s films are an example of those “artsy” and “slow” films many film-goers have a hard time with because the dramas are small and idiosyncratic, the characters lives often sad and bleak, the narrative following it’s own pace and lack of much “action” in the Hollywood sense. Yet this is not to say they are not absolutely filled with drama, but most of the drama is internal and psychological. Leigh famously utilizes copious improvised rehearsals, fleshing out the characters, dialogue and story that eventually appear on screen. Leigh gives his actors character and bare bones back story and has them develop full histories and act out the character’s past – situations that are never designed to appear on the screen. This technique allows all his actors to truly inhabit their characters psyches long before the camera rolls. Leigh’s films address the complex internal lives of the characters and the strained relationships between families and friends struggling under the weight of the past and the present. His unique directorial style has resulted in some breathtaking performances – David Thewlis’ portrayal of the nihlistic “Johnny” in Naked is absolutely the most astounding performance I’ve ever seen in film.

Leigh’s Secrets and Lies is a triumph. A small story about a family, somewhat estranged and weighed down with the discomfort of the titular lies and secrets they keep from each other. A mid-20s adopted woman’s pursuit of her birth mother brings to the surface the profound guilt and closely-held secret histories that plague the family. This film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1996 and Brenda Blethlyn’s devastating performance is the true centerpiece of this film. The sympathy Leigh shows towards these unhappily flawed people is more like his recent Happy Go Lucky than the cold eye of Naked and the transformative power of the family dealing with their shared histories and coming clean about their mistakes, failures and deception is extremely affecting. Secrets and Lies was one of the best two and a half hours of cinema I’ve seen in a long time.

5 out of 5 stars

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