Secrets and Lies

on October 25, 1996 by Lael Loewenstein
   One of the top contenders of this spring's Cannes, Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies" was universally admired for its supple juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, its exquisite performances and its emotional resonance. When 27-year-old London optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who was adopted, decides to track down her biological mother, she has no idea what hidden secrets she is about to unearth. In her quest to learn about her identity, the well-adjusted Hortense, who is black, never anticipated a significant detail: Her mother, Cynthia (Best Actress winner Brenda Blethyn), is white. Amazingly, Cynthia had never seen the child that resulted from a one-night stand three decades ago.
   Initially, Cynthia refuses to believe Hortense is her child. In one of the film's two pivotal scenes, the two women meet in a coffee shop. Convinced the young woman has erred, Cynthia is at first baffled. But after Hortense presents documentation of her birth, Cynthia's long-submerged, painful memories bubble to the surface. Leigh frames the women side by side, shooting their tense, funny and heartbreaking conversation in a single 12-minute take.
   It's a testament to the strength of Leigh's actors, the veracity of his dialogue and the tautness of his direction that the sequence is so riveting. Although they are as different as can be--Hortense is professionally trained, educated and well off, while Cynthia, a factory worker, is working class and uneducated and lives in a decrepit flat--the two women soon become friends. In an equally tense sequence that is at once excruciating and deeply funny, Cynthia invites Hortense to her younger daughter's birthday barbecue, choosing that misbegotten occasion to disclose to her family the true identity of this stranger.
   What makes "Secrets and Lies" powerful is its tone. This could easily have been the stuff of daytime drama, but Leigh ("Naked," "Life Is Sweet") reins in the histrionics. He and the actors, who spent weeks improvising before he sat down to write a script, have fully captured the pain and the guarded joys of a family in crisis.    Starring Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Directed and written by Mike Leigh. Produced by CiBy 2000. An October Films release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 142 min. Won Palme d'Or and Best Actress at Cannes. Opens 9/27 NY, 10/4 LA.
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