Somewhere along the way through my year of heavy reading, my brother suggested that I go back to a few selections that didn’t speak to me when I first read them, or ones that I might well have even put down. His logic – his sound logic, I must say – was that as ambitious as it was for me to pick up some of these books in my late teens and early twenties, I might not have been in the right headspace for them. While it’s true that the style, subtext, and themes of great art can sometimes be appreciated by young connoisseurs, it’s also true that a little bit of life experience can go a long way in understanding the subtleties that make something great.
So I now have plans to revisit books like “Heart of Darkness”, but where film is concerned, I can happily say I won’t need to revisit SECRETS & LIES to appreciate its greatness…though I would have if I’d seen it upon release.
Considered one of the great modern British films, SECRETS & LIES is a typical Mike Leigh film. That is to say that it tells the tale of the very real problems that face working class Brits. In this movie, the story centres around a woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, in an Oscar nominated performance). At first, she seems to live an everyday, unspectacular life. She’s a single mum of a grown daughter, she works in a box factory, and she leans on her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) for company and support.
One day though, Cynthia is in for a shock – the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was younger (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) has tracked her down. The woman now know as Hortense is a painful reminder of who Cynthia once was, and where she went a little wrong. Her return to Cynthia’s life doesn’t exactly turn her whole life upside down, but does force her to face some of the choices she’s made, and ask herself aloud why she didn’t make better ones.
What struck me so deeply about SECRETS & LIES was the way it could be titled the exact opposite. If ever there was a film about “Truth”, this is it. Every performance is so nakedly honest, that it’s difficult to watch in places.
Most often it’s the honesty at play between Blethyn and Jean-Bapiste that is most cutting. Whether it’s the initial denial, the second denial when the two women come face-to-face, or the ultimate breakdown in the scene above when Cynthia comes to grips with how this all came to be, so many scenes in this movie rise above melodrama and play out as moments of true human honesty. It’s incredible to see the sort of vulnerability in film that Blethyn brings to this movie. She’s not being showy, and not over-emoting. What she’s doing is tapping into something very raw…a side of ourselves that we usually bring our hands to our faces to cover.
So many moments in this movie are about true regret, and “ugly crying”. It’s the side of ourselves that gets hidden behind apartment doors when we are feeling at our lowest, or is carried in the pit of our stomachs for fear of being found out.
A friend of mine once said that so many of Mike Leigh’s movies are about one important question: “Are you happy?”. Throughout SECRETS & LIES, the answer is clear: “No”
However, maybe that’s not all there is to it. Maybe it’s not just about what we make of our own lives, but the way we bear witness to others. To this end, Timothy Spall’s character is a fascinating addition to this family drama. He is the witness…the observer. He’s literally these things, of course, since his character is a photographer. But bluntness of metaphor aside, his character reminds us that there is a lot to be said for being one who looks and listens.
This is a story, after all, that begins with a funeral…and what are gathered mourners if not a cluster of people to see a person off from this plane of existence by declaring for one and all “They were here. They mattered”
It’s not often that characters who are there to bear witness play the sort of role that Timothy Spall plays in this movie. Whether he’s listening to the sad tale of the injured beauty queen, or patiently documenting the most important day in young couples’ lives, a person like him is always needed at the scene to nod and reassure us.
These lies that we conceal…these truths that we face…we want someone, even need someone to quietly nod and tell us that it’s okay. That we’re okay. They’re not the sort of person that finds themselves at the centre of a movie all that often, which is why Mike Leigh’s films are so special. They do put people like Maurice and Cynthia at the centre of them, reminding us just how cinematic an ordinary life can be.
I’ve said this before about other films, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I’m happy that I came to SECRETS & LIES when I did. It was just a few years before this title was released that I started looking at film a little more seriously, and I fear that its true impact would have been lost on my younger self. The emotional wringer this family goes through wouldn’t have landed for a younger, more idealistic Ryan, and I dare say I might even have shrugged my shoulders and not understood all the fuss. Now though, with a bit more experience to drawn from and even several Mike Leigh films under my belt, the strength of the film hits me full-force.
Truthfully, I think that’s a big part of what I hope to achieve with this little viewing series of mine. I’m not just looking to watch the films that I should have seen by now, but also the films I’m finally ready to see. Such is the greatest lesson I learned from SECRETS & LIES: How we experience a film doesn’t just come down to how we watch it, and where we watch it, but perhaps what’s equally important is when we watch it.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for September so far…
Rebecca watched CENTRAL DO BRASIL
James watched GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
Beatrice watched Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN
Courtney Small watched THE MONSTER SQUAD
Josh watched THE THIN BLUE LINE
Keisha watched TOKYO STORY
Dell watched THE GREAT ESCAPE
Katie watched LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS
Anna watched KOYAANISQATSI
Andina watched TROIS COULEURS: BLEU
Mette watched CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS
Jay watched BIRTH OF A NATION
Chris watched MARY POPPINS
Brittani watched WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
Sean Kelly watched HOTEL RWANDA
Zoë watched AMÈLIE
Steven watched MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA