Secrets & Lies (1996) (R)
I don't think that telling a secret or revealing that I've been lying has ever felt good. Coming out of the closet, for example—#gayagenda—was probably the single most terrifying thing I've done my whole life; and it never felt good. So when it comes to a movie like "Secrets & Lies", I find it hard to sympathize with a group of secretive people who have arguably ruined each other's lives finding resolution by telling the truth....or should I say SPOILER? In essence, the movie then becomes a children's tale of not lying to your parents and it's almost patronizing at that.
Still, with the acting at its highest screech caliber and the music at its most heart-plucking evocative, the piece is an easy success with the sentimental audience, which I'm usually a part of. This time, not so much.
The movie begins at a funeral, which is a good indicator that we're not going to be buckled into a comedy. This is "realism" at its most bleak, but still optimistic...go figure. There are three distinct story lines: Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall) and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan), Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn) and her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), and Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Because the film is so intent on focusing on these three characters—Cynthia, Maurice, and Hortense—it will come as no surprise to understand that they're somehow related, pun intended. Cynthia and Maurice are brother and sister who begin the movie estranged from each other. It's been at least a year since they've spoken. Both feel that they are not responsible for making the first move to reunite. So they sit in stagnant melancholy, pining for their sibling, and the film wallows in their misery almost pleasurably.
Maurice is charming. He's a photographer who is at the top of his game, mainly because of how well he handles his clientele. Turning even the most unpleasant situation into a wallet-sized memory, Maurice is the nicest character in the movie. His wife, Monica, is the stereotypical overriding woman. She screams and yells and then kisses and makes up. Perpetually suffering from "lady problems", Monica can be seen as a representation of gender roles gone sour. It's not very pleasant to watch.
Cynthia is going to pieces. An unstable woman constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she finds herself weeping through most every scene and her high pitching shrieking voice and screams of "sweetheart!" only made my teeth be set on edge. This is, without a doubt, one of the most annoying characters. She is so pathetic that I wished I could reach through the screen and throttle her. A violent reaction...whoops! This is a drama, I'm supposed to be crying. Cynthia's relationship with her daughter is not great, well, it kind of sucks. The two get into shouting fights regularly and often lie or just fail to speak well, so communication lines are broken and we have to sigh because there they go again!
Lastly, Hortense, the black sheep of the movie. A black girl who has just suffered the loss of her mother—the funeral scene the movie opens with—she decides that in the wake of being left along with no parents, she will try to reach out to her birth mother. Oooooooh, intrigue.
Well, naturally, we can see where this is going. Since there are only a few main female characters we can slowly eliminate each one until we're left with only one choice: Cynthia. No surprise then, when fifteen minutes late Hortense stumbles across the name Cynthia Rose Purley and her attempted reunion begins. One problem: Cynthia is white.
A story like this has emotional potential, but I fail to see it harnessed. "Secrets & Lies" plays out like a theater production, and not in a good way. Like a botched highschool production with high quality actors and music. The point is, that each high and low is more grating than the last and the nexus of all things hysterical appears for one last dinner party.
It's like a murder mystery got thrown into a blender with "A Room With a View". The result is never enjoyable.
Mike Leigh is talented and he's proved this much before, "Secrets & Lies" does not show any of his powers. The only great thing to escape the movie is Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Every scene she's in, every line she gives is simply amazing. Paired with the screaming Blethyn, she holds her own and manages to outshine everyone, even by being silent.
I think the movie fails to recognize that some interpersonal ties can be shattered beyond repair and that telling the truth sometimes hurts the teller more than the listener. In this case, everything ends nicely and smoothly and there's a "wow, who would have thought?" moment in the final few seconds. It's all so sugary sweet that it makes me a bit nauseous.
The only good thing that "Secrets & Lies" can provide, is an excellent material for a college paper on gender roles in film...but that's it.
Posted by Micah Jones