From the opening credits, Andrew Dickson’s score sets the tone for Secrets & Lies. It’s going to be severe. I don’t think there’s a light moment in the score–any of the film’s lighter moments, usually involving Timothy Spall’s ability to make people smile (he’s a photographer, so it’s a good ability), are mostly silent. The film’s simultaneously a marvel of acting and filmmaking; Jon Gregory’s editing, director Leigh’s composition, Dick Pope’s photography, they all enable these unbelievable performances from the cast. Leigh’s script (or his concepts for the story) are also essential. The film’s characters are mostly ragged from the start, with the single exception of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as far as principals go). Jean-Baptiste is a satellite unaware of the other people she’s orbiting and even though Leigh forecasts the film’s structure from the second or third scene, it still comes as a shock when he crashes everything together. The film, which runs almost two and a half hours, has a singular structure and pace.
Little by little, Leigh and the cast build their characters and their characters’ relationships until the showdown. Everything before would be prologue if it weren’t for Jean-Baptiste, who’s the closest thing to a protagonist. She’s the one who inadvertently sets off the present action, even though she’s desperately trying to remain as passive as possible. She’s looking for her birth mother, not knowing anything about the birth mother (Brenda Blethyn in a spellbinding performance) or Blethyn’s family situation.
Top-billing goes to Timothy Spall, which is sort of appropriate–at least given the first act of the film–but once Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s story takes over, it’s really not his film anymore. Only it’s going to have to be his film again later, something Leigh has carefully established with the precise narrative. It’s not just how the scenes run together, it’s how Leigh directs each one. How he directs the actors, how he and editor Gregory cut each scene, how Dickson’s music seemingly compels the characters’ behavior. Secrets & Lies never shies away from being serious about its subject, this extended family in inadvertent ruin. Most of the time, with the exception of Jean-Baptiste, Leigh shoots the actors in close-up. The film rises and falls with their expressions and performances. It’s a good thing he gets such great performances out of them, even the most supporting players (for instance, Lesley Manville has a scene and a half and is spectacular).
The main cast–Spall, Jean-Baptiste, Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook–are all wondrous. The amount of emotion Leigh gets each of them to convey, the complexities of those emotions–especially between Blethyn and Rushbrook, as clashing mother and daughter respectively–is something to behold. Logan has her own somewhat detached subplot, which gives her more and more to do as it comes closer to the rest of the narrative. She’s great. It’s impossible to enumerate the performances. Everyone’s just too good.
Secrets & Lies is long without ever being lengthy, weighty without ever being tiring. Leigh masterfully crafts this picture, essentially aided by his actors and his crew. It’s an astounding motion picture.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Andrew Dickson; production designer, Alison Chitty; produced by Simon Channing Williams; released by Channel Four Films.
Starring Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Lee Ross (Paul), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Ron Cook (Stuart) and Lesley Manville (Social Worker).