Secrets & Lies (1996) Review


Hortense Cumberbatch is a successful black middle class woman who had been adopted as a child, the death of her adoptive mother caused her to trace her family history. She wasn’t expecting her birth mother to be a working class white woman!


Cynthia Purley is working class and does not have very much going on in her life. She lives with her daughter Roxanne who is about to turn 21, they have a very strained and tense relationship. She lacks any real ambition and content in her job as a street sweeper. Maurice is Cynthia’s younger brother who is a successful photographer, and currently having a tough time in his marriage to Monica. This is something that is not fully clear why to begin with, but that is all part of not only the character building but the story building as well.

Hortense was warned by public officials that trying to track down her birth mother might not work out in the way she could imagine. The bombshell that she was listed on the paperwork as white was just the start of it. It didn’t really take her very long to be able to track her down and the first phone call does not really give us much hope, but this is something that obviously shocks Cynthia.

The friendship that then comes from the contact is quite lovely in all honesty, even though Cynthia has not told anyone about it. Roxanne did not even know that she had another child. This was always then going to create a big scene at some point, which in all honesty is some of the best acting I have witnessed in a film. It was raw, emotional, tense and truly heartbreaking. All of those things wrapped into one truly incredible scene. Cynthia dropping the news that Hortense was not just someone she worked with at the worst possible moment. Roxanne well and truly freaking out and then Maurice eventually losing it after keeping it together for so long. Absolute genius in writing and filmmaking from Mike Leigh.

Maurice knew about the baby but not any details, I found it heartbreaking to know that Cynthia did not even know herself that her daughter was black. She was a teenager and not in the position to be able to look after a child, still pretty much being one herself. Hortense had a lovely adoptive family and a good job, this was something that impressed Maurice that was for sure and he admired her so much even though he had only just met her.

When everything hits breaking point it eventually does for Maurice and Monica, with Cynthia eventually bonding with her sister-in-law. The pair did not get on with each other at all, so that was another amazingly good moment. It is hard not to think about what secrets and lies those around you might be keeping after watching this film and I think that is an incredible way to feel after being engrossed within this masterpiece.

This British film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. Mike Leigh was nominated twice for his directing and writing directly for the screen. Brenda Blethyn was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in a Supporting Role. I think my only shock with this is that Timothy Spall was not nominated as an Actor in a Supporting Role as he was just wonderful in the film as well.

Brenda Blethyn effortlessly leads the film and everything goes on through or around her in the best possible manner. She deserves so much credit for her acting ability shown in this film, managing to have the perfect mixture of anxiety driven guilt with trying to please everyone. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a breath of fresh air and certainly adds to the films kinder moments given he tough subject matter. Timothy Spall was a scene stealer that is for sure and the build up to his outburst was very well done, given that he just seemed to take everything that was given to him. While being very professional within his job and quite frankly coming across as a truly nice man.

Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook and Lee Ross we impressive and essential with the reactions to the other performances. It all had to fit and work together for the film to be this powerful. I think in particular Ross who was not given much dialogue but there as a new member of this film that really was on the edge.

Something that is fascinating about the film and Mike Leigh was that he did not allow the cast to know everything about the other characters, they had to focus on what they knew. Giving it a real authentic feel with the actors not actually realising what was going to be coming next. I thought that was quite frankly perfect and genius and really must have helped with the finished product we see on screen.

Secrets & Lies really did blow me away and everything about each performance, the different dialogue really had me engaged and wondering what turn we were going to take next. Although this was written directly for the screen, it feels a lot like it could have been based on a play with the emotional factor of the family drama and impressive dialogue.

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