A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Too much attention is paid to Mike Leigh's famous method for "devising" his screenplays. It is well known that he imagines characters and a situation, casts actors to play the characters, joins with them in workshops where the dialogue and the plot take shape, and only then writes the screenplay. Quite true, but that doesn't mean he's winging it; his "Secrets & Lies" (1996) reveals a filmmaker who works with the most delicate precision to achieve exactly what he desires. The payoff for his method comes in scenes like the film's two very long and unbroken takes, when he calls on his actors to use the disciplines of the stage as well as the screen.
Leigh, born 1943, made his first feature, "Bleak Moments," in 1971. He made his second, "High Hopes," in 1988. In between, he worked constantly for television and the theater but couldn't get a film financed because the backers wanted to see a script, and of course he didn't have one. When I saw "Bleak Moments," I knew I was watching a masterpiece by a great director and wrote a long review for the Sun-Times. This turned out to be the film's first review; Leigh had been ignored at home in England. In the 17 years between features, he perfected what he instinctively began with: tragicomic portraits of discontented people in trying circumstances, and an embarrassment in social situations that borders on pathology.
Although he makes some characters into caricatures, there is a compassion in his work that acts like a safety net. Characters who seem over the top in one scene have a way of rounding out later in a film. That's true of Brenda Blethyn's performance in "Secrets & Lies" as Cynthia Purley, a factory worker who rattles discontentedly around the little rowhouse she was born in and regards Roxanne, her 20-year-old daughter, with despair. Cynthia seems an anthology of raw sadness and worry, but she will be transformed when her worst nightmare comes true.
This happens when she receives a phone call from Hortense Cumberbatch, who Cynthia bore out of wedlock at 16 and gave up for adoption without ever seeing her. Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a black woman, now in her late 20s, an optometrist. After the death of her mother, she decides to seek her birth mother, and the long-held secret of Cynthia's first child is threatened. This secret has been guarded not only by Cynthia but by her younger brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), and his wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan).