Tag Archives: Brenda Blethyn

Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

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.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

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).


RELATED

Advertisements

Piccadilly Jim (2004, John McCay)

Not too long ago, I used to get excited when good actors would make movies together. They didn’t have to be great movies, Barbet Schroeder could have directed them or Sandra Bullock could have starred in them–I’m fairly certain this period was known as the 1990s. It’s taken me three years to see Piccadilly Jim, which never got a domestic release, so it’s not as far out of the 1990s as it could be. It’s an absurd comedy, using an overblown emphasis on the popular conceptions of the 1930s to attempt to endear itself on the audience. Essentially, it’s the same concept as Radioland Murders, only successful. It’s successful for a few reasons. I’ll get the least exciting ones out of the way. First, the scope. Whether it’s London or New York of the 1930s, the scope is wonderful. There’s some extra-glossy, CG-enhanced scenery, but mostly it’s interiors. McKay does it beautifully. It’s exploitative, how interesting he makes the film look. It’s probably to distract from how confusing it is to understand and how unbelievable it is. Second, the script. Julian Fellowes essentially takes a Marx Brothers movie, removes the Marx Brothers, removes the songs, changes the focus to the young couple in trouble and runs with it. He assigns the Marx Brothers’s tasks to the young couple, it’s an interesting way of doing it and it works. Of course, it might have worked that way in the source material. I don’t know.

Now, the gushy part. While Piccadilly Jim is not the finest exhibit of Sam Rockwell’s acting abilities, it’s fun. He’s funny, he immediately engages the viewer. It probably was not a hard role, but he does it perfectly. Frances O’Connor, who’s constantly appearing and disappearing from cinema–rather frustratingly–is fantastic. Watching her and Rockwell together, the verbal sparing, the rapid-fire back and forths, it’s wonderful. Her role ought to be impossible, because it’s so absurd, but she really makes it work. The other great performance is Tom Wilkinson. He and Rockwell as father and son is great to watch, because it’s probably Rockwell’s talent at something besides being charming in an odd way comes through. The only disappointing performance–Allison Janney is fine but nothing spectacular–is Brenda Blethyn. O’Connor plays an American and she’s great, but Blethyn seems like she’s uncomfortable doing it (odd, Piccadilly Jim‘s a British with Americans playing Americans and British playing Americans and whatever, never mind). She’s not having any fun. It might be the constraints of the character, but it’s Brenda Blethyn. She’s usually outstanding.

I wasn’t expecting much from Piccadilly Jim because it never got the U.S. release and, in an interview at the time, Rockwell didn’t seem very excited about it. But it really reminded me, movies can be fun and intelligent and good without necessarily being great. The sad thing, of course, is in the 1990s, Piccadilly Jim was closer to the norm than not.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McCay; screenplay by Julian Fellowes, from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by David Freeman; music by Adrian Johnston; production designer, Amanda McArthur; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Andrew Hauptman; released by United International Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Jim Crocker), Frances O’Connor (Ann Chester), Tom Wilkinson (Bingley Crocker), Brenda Blethyn (Nesta Pett), Allison Janney (Eugenia Crocker), Austin Pendleton (Peter Pett), Hugh Bonneville (Lord Wisbeach), Tom Hollander (Willie Partridge), Geoffrey Palmer (Bayliss), Rupert Simonian (Ogden Ford) and Kevin Eldon (Wizzy).


RELATED