February 22nd: The Memory Remains

54. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1995)

Hi all, one of the students who I am supposed to be helping is using Mike Leigh for their coursework. So I thought I’d crack on with one of his most revered works.

It’s 2 hours and twenty minutes long and not exactly cheerful. But it is absolutely brilliantly performed. Mike Leigh coaxes a performance like no other director, his methods are completely unique and they often garner some sublime results. In Secrets & Lies a disparate family with an abundance of troublesome issues play out their neuroses and difficulties. As this is happening one secret actively makes her way back into the family. Hortence was given up for adoption and seeks out her mother, Cynthia. She becomes the catalyst for the family to come together and finally deal with the issues that rule their lives. The central gripping performance in this film is Timothy Spall’s lumbering gentle bear of a man, Maurice. He sits in the centre of this web of secrets and lies and stops the people he cares most about from tearing each other apart. 

A key theme of Mike Leigh’s cinema is the role of women and concepts/representations of motherhood. In Secrets & Lies the issue is highly prominent as it is the reconciliation of Cynthia and Hortence is contrasted with Cynthia’s poor relationship with her other daughter Roxanne. All of this is in contrast with Maurice’s wife Monica who, it is strongly suggested for most of the film, is unable to bear children. The question seems to be raised about parentage. What does Mike Leigh suggest constitutes a parent? Maurice is the most successful parent (as suggested when Jane says that she wishes she had a father like him), but he has no children of his own – only a distant relationship with Roxanne. It seems that Leigh, with the final scenes of the film, thinks motherhood is a compromise – a ‘making do’. As Cynthia, however clumsily, has managed to unite her family (with a deal of gratitude to Maurice) into a unit with some promise of a happier future.

Just a quick point, I love Mike Leigh’s use of suburban locations. His is a cinema of homes and houses, it’s a refreshingly low-key way of filming.