One integral proponent of Mike Leigh’s work is the coming together of characters who have nothing to do with one another. Their lives are entwined, but the issues they hold within them are the business of nobody else, not least those Leigh wishes them to spend time with. There may be the idle chat or comment made, as there is in Another Year, but never an explicit, obvious piece of dialogue that demonstrates a clamour for help or an expression of guilt from one character to another. The implication is stronger than the obviousness. Ambiguity is the strongest tool of Leigh’s work, especially for Secrets & Lies, a film where the struggle of the two leading characters is through the ambiguity of family and what it means.
For Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) it is a confusing minefield that strikes her as isolating. She hasn’t connected with her successful brother, Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall). Counteracting that isolation and the understanding of it is Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who seeks out her birth mother. They are connected in more ways than just the search for acceptance by their family. Both are seeking out their loved ones, but the obvious disparity between the two is where Leigh works in the intricate emotions necessary to engaging with both of these stories. Leigh opens his film with death and the unity of a funeral. Family gatherings are where grievances grow. Jean-Baptiste portrays that with a tremendously moving performance.
Her grievance is not just at the death of her adopted parents, but at the idea she could have her birth parents out there. A new lease of life for her would mean a sudden divergence of grief. She could replace the past with a limited future. Secrets & Lies is all about replacing the grievances of the past. Sibling rivalries bubble through jealousy and childhood guilt. Pouting faces and glum surroundings make up the initial lifestyles of the leading characters, it is the change that soon comes that feels so rewarding. For Secrets & Lies, Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s dynamic with one another is the satisfying change of tone that Leigh wishes to seek out, and the chemistry between them is exciting and confident. They depict tones of isolation and find comfort in their dependency on one another, and the reveals soon take them through realisations that shake the foundation of both their lifestyle and their relationship with one another.
“What’s there to smile about?” questions Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). What indeed? The torrent of grief that overcomes those within Secrets & Lies is through a sense of aimlessness. Their comfort in life is ambiguous because they are jealous of those within their immediate family who have had it better. There is sympathy to be displayed for them, and Leigh does a tremendous job at showing not just the two different sides of life, but that there is no real difference between the people who inhabit them. One struck lucky, the other was mired by social problems that she tries to rectify throughout Secrets & Lies. Tremendously moving those moments may be, the character study at the heart of this Leigh feature is a respectable, entertaining and well-meaning family drama with more than a few exceptionally unique twists that allow it to break free from conforming to the usual humdrum, drab lifestyles Britain so often offers.