Secrets & Lies (1996)

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Cast: Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook
Nominations: Picture, Director – Mike Leigh, Actress – Brenda Blethyn, Supporting Actress – Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Original Screenplay

Mike Leigh is an enigma of a filmmaker.  When creating a script, he doesn’t sit at the keyboard and start typing; he doesn’t write up life histories of his characters; he doesn’t break out a fresh stack of note cards and jot down scenes.  Instead—although there’s not much information about the process, there are glimpses of it available to read—he gets an idea for a story or characters, gathers actors, and works with them to craft the narrative of the film.  In theatre, this is called workshopping, but most often a playwright has already written the script and is working with the actors and director to finesse it to more polished product that can hit the ground running.  Leigh forgoes the script at first.  His focus is learning who the story can be about and letting the actors discover their characters through improvisations and discussions.  After a few months of this, Leigh takes all the notes and recordings from the workshops and writes a bare-bones screenplay—more of a scenario or beat sheet, in which there is little scripted dialogue, so further improvisation can be included—then the cast and crew goes into shooting the film.

It’s a unique way of bring a film to life; so unique, in fact, that there were 17 years between Leigh’s first feature film (Bleak Moments [1971]) and his second (High Hopes [1988]) because when meeting with potential producers he couldn’t show them a screenplay, only share an idea, character, or situation.  Fortunately, Leigh’s skill and ability to capture something truly special on film was fully recognized and appreciated, and he has gone on to write and direct eleven more films since High Hopes.  That includes his only Best Picture nominee, Secrets & Lies.

The plot of Secrets & Lies is simple, which is true of many Mike Leigh films, but that allows us to delve deeper into the lives of the characters without getting too concerned about what’s happening.  What’s more deserving of our attention are the characters the plot happens to. 

The main characters of the central narrative are Hortense and Cynthia.  Their connection to each other is made apparent quite early in the film, so what we follow before their meeting—which doesn’t happen until halfway through the film (about 70 minutes in)—is how each of them current lives in the world without knowing each other.  Hortense is professionally successful, but personally alone.  Her adoptive parents have both died, and in a brief scene in which she doesn’t even interact with them, we see a strong disconnect between her and her older brothers (who weren’t adopted).  Cynthia, on the other hand, has a dead-end job at a cardboard box factory and doesn’t have much of a substantial relationship with her daughter Roxanne or her brother Maurice.  For Cynthia’s family, she’s a burden, a cross they bear, that needs taking care of in repayment for her having raised them.  To be sure, until after she meets Hortense, Cynthia comes across as an annoying, complaining, blubbering mess of a human being.  After she and Hortense begin their relationship, Cynthia slowly gains more confidence—she definitely cries less and becomes less shrill.  With Hortense, Cynthia is given a fresh chance to be a mother and friend without any baggage from a dysfunctional past.  (That’s not to say their relationship is without problems, just that the problems haven’t been compounding and growing for almost 30 years.)

One of the most beautiful aspects of Secrets & Lies is how complex and complete all of its characters are.  There are no pretenses about traditional archetypes or expectations, and much of that comes from the workshopping during pre-production.  Unlike, say, a screenwriter who’s read Syd Field or Blake Snyder who’s going to come up with a story and characters and fit everything together into a three-act structure, Mike Leigh’s incorporation of the actors in the “writing” process results in characters that actors want to play because they created them as much as—if not more than—the writer did.  A male writer might struggle with writing female characters because of narrative structure or genre conventions or plain lack of knowledge and empathy; that typically ends with either a Mary Sue, a manic pixie dream girl, a caricature, or some other generic stock character whose only role in the film is to be there for and support the (usually) male protagonist.  Giving the responsibility of discovering a character to an actor ensures that the character will have more nuances and depth, even if what the actor discovers never shows up on screen.

Take Maurice and Monica as an example.  For most of the film, they don’t touch each other, don’t display any signs of affection, or even say “I love you.”  But when Maurice helps her on bedrest and is there for her, his are not actions of someone going through the paces; they’re done out of love and commitment.  This is something they’ve done many times and that intimacy and longevity is potent.  Their scenes together aren’t just scenes to forward the narrative or plot, rather, they’re glimpses into a long-married couples’ life: there’s shorthand, quick looks, and an overall tenderness, even when tempers are rising.  Theirs is a more developed relationship in one or two scenes than most movies could deliver over the course of two hours.

The above paragraphs only hint at the iceberg hiding below the surface of the film.  It’s easy enough to relay what happens and who the characters are, but the true joy of Secrets & Lies is in the actual watching.  Every performance is topnotch, every line of dialogue is meaningful, every bit of blocking and mise-en-scène is purposeful and impactful.  It won’t blow you away with star power and special effects, but it will most definitely keep you on the edge of your seat, eager to see what comes next.