I am not among those merry legions who consider Mike Leigh's new film, Secrets & Lies, a masterpiece. Still, given what else is out there right now, it'll do. It has deeply felt passages, an eloquent sunny-sorrowful tone, and freewheeling actors who tickle and abrade each other's nerve endings. Leigh doesn't condescend to us, and so we feel complimented -- grateful. Secrets & Lies is too draggy and repetitive, but you still feel like you've been through something when it's over. The small-scale lives of its people are enlarged by Leigh's feeling for the lyrical possibilities in the everyday.
For those familiar with his work -- not just his three recent theatrical features (Naked, the wonderful Life Is Sweet, and High Hopes) but also his television movies for the BBC and his plays -- Secrets & Lies plays like a Leigh compendium. It's got bleakness and class-consciousness and kitchen-sink comedy-drama and laughing-through-tears family squabbling and double basses mournfully sawing away on the soundtrack.
But what will probably make it Leigh's first mass-audience hit in this country is its core situation: the reunion of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who was given up for adoption at birth and who is black, with her white biological mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). It's hearts-and-flowers time in the Land of Leigh. Audiences can feel like they're taking part in something classy and nutritious and still have a good cry.
If they do cry, they'll be in fast company with the people on the screen -- particularly Cynthia, who spends most of the movie halfway between a sniffle and a wail. Cynthia's perpetual state of near-collapse has its comic-horror side, and Leigh keeps her travails center stage. He likes her wallop. (Leigh used Blethyn in a similar manner in his superb 1980 TV film Grown-Ups, where she was the deranged chatterbox who upends a bourgeois household.) It takes awhile until you realize Cynthia's caterwauling and clinginess are her way of coping.
One of the things Cynthia has to cope with is her rejection by her surly, chain-smoking daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), who is a sanitation worker and shares her apartment; Cynthia is also on the outs with her photographer brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), and his tightly wound upwardly mobile wife, Monica (Phyliss Logan), whom she holds responsible for the rift. With no man in her life, and a drudge factory job, Cynthia is ripe for deliverance.
With her adoptive parents gone -- the film opens with her mum's funeral -- Hortense is ripe for deliverance, too. She decides to seek out her birth mother. The scenes where she phones the shocked, boozy Cynthia and persuades her to get together, followed by their reunion in a train station tea room, are small miracles of engaged byplay. Hortense was shocked when she first found out through a social services agency that her birth mother was white; now it's Cynthia's turn to be shocked. (At 15, she never saw the baby she gave up, and she had forgotten all about her liaison with a black man.) Cynthia and Hortense initially look funny together: The mother's big-boned whiteness doesn't jibe with her daughter's dark luster. More than that, Cynthia's shrill, working-class twang and daffy patter clash with Hortense's soft-spoken poise.
Leigh doesn't milk the women's differences, though, and -- it's an indication of his taste and intelligence -- he doesn't play up any newfound similarities either. (A Hollywood hack would have them comparing earlobes and pinkies.) We experience the connections between the two women at the same moment they do; improbably, inevitably, they become friends, and, Leigh is saying, maybe that is the best you can hope for.
In reaching out for family, Hortense gets caught up in the upsets and subterfuges of Cynthia's inner circle. Although for most of the movie her existence is kept secret from the rest of the family -- only Maurice and his wife know Cynthia's history anyway -- Hortense has a dawning awareness of the mess she's coming into. She may be new on the scene, but the feuds that pull on Cynthia go way back. Leigh doesn't blame anybody. There are no villains. He keeps everybody spinning in their own intersecting orbits, and the film could easily twirl off into a half-dozen equally revelatory realms.
When, for example, Maurice is snapping his studio portraits, we're treated to a quick montage of humankind. As the people pose, we seem to be watching entire lives in microcosm -- a boxer snarling for the lens; a mother with her triplet daughters; a gaggle of barristers; a pudgy, giggly lady in see-through frills; a tense, unhappy Middle Eastern couple; a beauty consultant who has lost her job because her face has been scarred in a car accident. Any one of these posings, we feel, could become its own movie. Leigh is unusual in that he's both a gifted miniaturist and a champion of the long form.
Maurice makes his living making people look good -- trying to make them smile -- so his own unsmiling family circle must count for him as a personal failure. Maurice has a roly-poly hedgehog look -- he could be a character from The Wind and the Willows -- but there's something overly righteous about him. When Cynthia embraces him in the room of their late father and weeps, he stands there baffled and unmoved. He seems to have sealed himself off from some great hurt, but he overvalues his own self-importance. After an unexpected visit in his studio from a resentful dissolute photographer friend (Ron Cook), he remarks to his wife, "There but for the grace of God go I," and his words ring hollow because he's too eager to claim victory for himself. He's trying to look good by elevating himself above this sour, sodden man, and it only reduces him in our eyes.
Leigh is often spoken of in hushed tones as an "original," and there's some truth to this. At least his working methods are original to the commercial world of moviemaking: He fashions his films from a series of long-term improvisatory rehearsals in which his actors work up situations that eventually are scripted and lead to a theme -- a story. The actors are kept in the dark about the big picture; often only upon seeing the finished film do they realize what Leigh was up to. The point of all this hush-hush hoo-ha is supposedly a freer and more immediate experience for the actors and for us.
Without downplaying the artistic advantages of using the medium in such an intuitive way, I would suggest that the same effects have been achieved by film artists with fixed shooting schedules and prepared scripts not worked up through improvs. Is what Leigh is doing any richer than what, say, Renoir or Ray or De Sica or Bergman came up with? His working methods are not so very different from how most gifted writer/directors operate -- it's just that he brings his actors into the creative process a lot sooner. (He also seeks financing without a script or even a "concept," which rules out Hollywood, though I suspect some American independent cartel will be eager to take a chance on him now.)
All the exaltation over Leigh's evenhanded methods neglects the fact that, in his own free-form way, he often is working up his own skewed political agenda. I could barely make it through Naked, an anti-Thatcher-ish piece of glorioso glumness starring rubber-mouthed David Thewlis as an outlaw rapist and gutter poet. (Anti-heroes should not be so obscenely self-regarding.) In High Hopes, as well as in such TV films as the 1978 Who's Who, Leigh has caricatured the upwardly mobile middle classes, as well as the twitty upper classes, with as much venom as any agitprop Marxist politico.
Although Secrets & Lies is a much more plangent and fair-minded movie, it still carries whiffs of class condescension in the scenes involving Maurice's wife, Monica, whose upward-bound middle-classness is ultimately viewed as a strident substitute for her inability to have children. Mummy love is real big in Leigh's new film, and he sentimentalizes its healing powers with all the brio of a Hollywood romantic. (He's just not nearly as obvious about it.)
When he accepted the Golden Palm for Secrets & Lies at Cannes last year, Leigh, in a speech of excruciating humility, told his audience he made movies "about people, love, relationships, caring, real life -- all the things that are important." Leigh's films are best when they are not trying to be Important, when he just lets his characters play out the grotesque funniness of their lives. (I'm thinking of his 1975 TV film Nuts in May and Grown-Ups and Life Is Sweet and the best parts of Secrets & Lies.) Leigh is a post-"kitchen sink" social realist who brings to the kitchen the saving grace of comedy -- which in his movies almost always issues from pain. (That's why his films are often saddest when they're funniest.)
The more Leigh bears down on his political agenda, the more he classifies his lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation, the phonier his movies seem. (Like Naked.) If Leigh is serious about reaching for a more genuine and humane social realism, he doesn't need to punch up class differences. The differences in England are already manifest.
At least Leigh doesn't patronize the working and lower-middle classes. (It's when he moves up the social register that things get iffy.) He's too honest and exuberant an artist to indulge in the "little people" stuff that pocks so many films about the Common Folk. Neither does he glorify their drudgery, or, like his compatriot Ken Loach, mistake drabness for reality. The Angry Young Man of the late '50s and early '60s has been flushed down the kitchen sink. In his place Leigh gives us the Simpering Young Man. (Except he's not so young anymore, and more often than not he's a she.) Leigh's saving grace is also the saving grace of English drama: a love of eccentricity. At his best he uses eccentricity as a way in to the soul. He and his actors are alive to the refreshments of the unexpected.
When Hortense suddenly pulls a funny face in front of Cynthia at their second meeting, it's a great moment because it's the first time they really laugh together. That funny face tells us Hortense is her mother's long-lost child regained.
Secrets & Lies screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival Thursday, Oct. 3. It opens Friday, Oct. 4, at the Clay in S.F. and the Act One/Two in Berkeley.