Friday, October 12, 2012

Tune in Tomorrow...: "Secrets & Lies" (1996)

Mike Leigh writes and directs yet another everyday man's look at the world around him, but gives in to soap opera storylines, which disappoints the viewer.

Hortense's (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) adopted mother has recently died, and Hortense decides to look for her real birth mother. She gets the paperwork, but notices a mistake. Hortense is black, but her birth certificate lists her mother as white. The social work agency insists there is no mistake, and Hortense tracks down birth mother Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn).

Cynthia has a life of her own, but not a very good one. She has a boring job in a factory. She is raising sullen daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) alone. Roxanne is about to turn twenty-one, sweeps streets for a living, and spends her down time laying around the house smoking cigarettes or hanging out with her boyfriend Paul. Cynthia is estranged from her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall, one of the greatest actors of the last two decades), a portrait photographer who must deal with sometimes unhappy wife Monica (Phyllis Logan).

Cynthia seems to be a wit's end throughout her whole existence. Maurice wants to make contact again with Roxanne's birthday coming up. Cynthia is still staying in the decrepit family home where they were raised while Maurice has moved into a nice large home with Monica, never having his sister over for a visit.

Out of the blue, Hortense calls Cynthia with her bombshell, and they arrange to meet. Despite reservations on both sides, Cynthia and Hortense become acquaintances, never seeming to become great friends. They meet for meals, and learn more about each other. Maurice's old business partner returns to town, demanding a job, and Maurice's tension begins to increase. Cynthia invites Hortense to Roxanne's party at Maurice and Monica's home, and all the secrets and lies (well, most of the secrets and lies) are exposed in one grandiose afternoon.

Blethyn and Rushbrook look so similar, they may be related. Roxanne's pinched face and angry demeanor are great. Blethyn infuses Cynthia with a little too much shrewishness, I wish she had toned it down a little. Timothy Spall is absolute perfection. Every line and mannerism is not only believable, but he reminds me of people I have met before. Phyllis Logan thankfully plays his wife close, never letting the audience in on what she is hiding. Of all the secrets and lies revealed in the finale, her's came across as the most painful. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is so natural at being Hortense, you soon realize her character is too laid back, especially when contrasted with this highly emotional family.

While the cast of actors are excellent, I hated that they were trapped in a sometimes overly sentimental story. There is not one weak performance here, right down to the subjects of Maurice's photographs. Leigh writes a long (almost two and a half hours) soap opera that has little suspense as to how it will turn out. Even the title is all wrong, I can envision an announcer saying "Will Cynthia reveal her black daughter to her white family? Will Monica finally reveal her pain? Find out on tomorrow's episode of 'Secrets & Lies,' right after 'Port Charles' on ABC." The morbid musical score hints at something heavier than the script gives us.

"Secrets & Lies" is an emotion filled film with passionate characters. I wish Leigh had given them something more to do than a season cliffhanger episode of "Knots Landing." I recommend the acting, and not much else. (* * *) out of five stars.