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Leigh Dishes Up Family Ties Without Mallory

Secrets and Lies directed by Michael Leigh Starring Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn at the Kendall Square Cinema

By Nicolas R. Rapold

If you're still working on that project detailing the waves of post-Thatcher euphoria and equanimity sweeping across working-class Britain, you've got the wrong movie. With "Secrets and Lies," Director Mike Leigh presents an absorbing, simmering drama about the colliding orbits of a brother and sister as their lives grow more complex. Beautifully composed and shot in lavishly extended, naturalistic takes, the film might draw fire only for some questionable difference in acting techniques among the cast.

Siblings Maurice (Timothy Spall) and Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) shared a challenging childhood and adolescence but have since hardly spoken to each other: he is married and busy with a prosperous photography business; she is coping as a single mother of a chain-smoking teen, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). Meanwhile, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the child Cynthia gave up for adoption and forgot, tracks down her mother. Revelation to Maurice and to Roxanne seems imminent. Drama ensues.

But this is drama of the talkie, misanthropic kind. Cynthia nags and pleads with Roxanne about "taking care of herself" (birth control); Roxanne in turn twists up her face, obscured by cigarette smoke, to spit out replies in her patented you-stupid-old-slag tone. Maurice's wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), directs sniper-shots of verbal abuse at Maurice when he comes home on her most physically trying day. Even his old business partner, Stuart (Ron Cook), turns up at his office for the sole purpose of berating Maurice and wistfully whining about still having "the eye" for photography.

This philosophy of story-telling -- that life stories are more a matter of narrating daily annoyances so as to expose long-festering miseries and lies at the most improper time -- might seem at first grating and pessimistic. Adding Leigh's habit of parking the camera before two or three people whose lives are slowly cracking and splintering might seem a bit much. But in fact, as the scenes are drawn out, we are drawn in. We wish for the characters' sake that the shot would end, if only for the illusion that their sadness might stop for a beat off camera. In one scene in an empty restaurant, where Cynthia talks at length with Hortense for the first time and suddenly realizes the truth, we almost feel embarrassed at being privy to Hortense's silent agony and Cynthia's suffering.

Leigh seems intent upon this there-are-no-closed-doors philosophy; more than once we are privy to the sight of a loo and its occupant. Indeed, Maurice's entire career consists of extracting sparkling teeth and good cheer from frowning or bickering subjects. While sometimes the interludes where we see Maurice photographing clients offers comic relief (a goofy couple, for example), we're so conditioned to expect the overwhelming secrets behind a given scene that we do not rest for too long.

Through all this, the solidly built Maurice acts as the peaceful eye of the storm, responding with measured tones and keeping expressionless his prodigiously proportioned jowls. Spall's sympathetic presence saves many a scene from ragged wailing. As Hortense, Jean-Baptiste offers an almost unbelievable portrait of composure, offering a steady patience and tolerance that is utterly divorced from the troubles that swirl around the family her character is trying to enter.

To these pacific figures, Leigh adds shaking, saddened Cynthia -- and there lies the rub. Blethyn gives Cynthia all the delicacy and poise of a crack baby, at times almost frightening to watch. This portrayal works to a large extent and could probably stand on its own. She is, in truth, still a child who was thrust into playing the adult early on, and Blethyn's small, quavering voice further lends a perfect, little-girl feel to all her quirky little expressions ("I wouldn't know 'im if'e stood up in me soup!").

But, down to the final scene, Blethyn just seems to inhabit a higher level of misery, to achieve great heights of red-faced weeping, to which the other actors simply aren't aspiring. It's not overdone, it's completely appropriate to her story but there are rare times when it just doesn't click. Fortunately, these times are few and far between, and Leigh knows enough to manipulate the overall pace of the movie so as to distribute attention fairly amongst the ones suffering. At one point, when Cynthia begins to meet regularly with her new-found darling Hortense, a previously unseen relaxed tone provides ample variety.

Technically, the movie looks by turns stunning and plain, whichever is appropriate. In some shots, Leigh prefers to give the actors full attention, ignoring all else (which perhaps led to the scene between Cynthia and Hortense in a restaurant that is completely devoid of waitstaff and customers). But in others, Leigh has composed the screen with the care of a painter: here, Maurice sits brooding in a bar such that we expect to see a glass of absinthe; there, a ringing phone becomes a demon in the dark as Cynthia nervously approaches.

Colors become jarring plays on the mood or plot of the scene: Cynthia cannot believe that Hortense, who is black, is her daughter and calls her just as Hortense is wearing a white facial mask -- highlighting her misguided assumptions. In the final scene, Maurice's peaceful, blue shirt, set against an innocent turquoise mush of wallpaper, sets one up to be surprised at his suddenly unrestrained response to the family's conflicts.

"Secrets and Lies" can be appreciated on enough levels to please even the grumpiest of viewers, although curmudgeons among those ranks might still rightfully grumble at certain acting choices. But Leigh has made an intelligent film that stands out from the rest of the current cinematic fare in both technique and subject matter and one that consequently should not be missed.

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