Secrets & Lies

UK, 1996, 141 mins
Director: Mike Leigh

After the lonely nihilism of Naked (1993), a tense but tender insistence on the importance of human connections is the key to Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s mid-career masterpiece. Digging into the shame and concealment uncovered when Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Black optometrist finds her white birthmother Cynthia and a fractured family, the film develops into sharp tragicomedy as the friction between the characters grows.

Leigh’s trademark improv development process roots the film impressively, giving the fraught relationships an unusual intensity. Looked at beadily 25 years on, editor John Gregory’s beautiful balance of emotional family scenes and quiet reflections, leavened with a comic but resonant flurry of photographer Maurice’s work shoots, establishes the films network of needs. Even its oddities add to the rich mix (the French financiers tried to axe a tiny life-in-one-scene drunken cameo by Ron Cook, whose resentful reek adds useful pathos). That heart-stopping eight-minute first meeting scene is still grabby rather than grandstanding, Cynthia’s slow mortification showing off Brenda Blethyn’s extraordinary performance. But Timothy Spall’s less showy bemusement and unease as peacemaker Maurice and Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s compassionate Hortense feel equally vital.
Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, June 2021

Secrets & Lies looks at the lives of Black and white Britons and tries to imagine a way in which both can begin to share the same family blood link.

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young Black professional woman, decides, on the death of both her Black foster parents, to seek out her biological mother. When she approaches the relevant social services department, she discovers for the first time that her biological mother, Cynthia, is white.

Secrets is full of other surprises. It bravely subverts stereotypes and challenges easy assumptions. For instance, it allows another insight into questions of race and class. When Hortense eventually meets her biological mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), she finds a socially inadequate woman who has allowed her dreams to be crushed by the limited horizons and realities of her life. The contrast between their lifestyles is even more acute. Hortense has a professional job and owns her own immaculately decorated flat, while Cynthia works in a factory and lives in a shambolic and crumbling house. Her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), is a road sweeper, and she leans heavily on her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) for emotional support.

Hortense’s presence haunts this film. Until Cynthia has made peace with her, she will not be completely at peace with herself. The climax of this process of soul searching is reached at a family birthday party for Roxanne where, all the family’s secrets and lies are laid bare. Amidst the tears and new truths, Hortense, the ‘dark stranger’, is finally welcomed into the white British family.

Hortense goes forward to her white family – but in order to do this she has to go alone. We see no pictures of her Black foster parents, and her two foster brothers are seen only once, arguing with each other about their inheritance, but never talk to Hortense. But it is not just her Black foster family (read Black culture) who must remain ‘strangers’ – the Black man, Hortense’s real father, remains somewhere at the edge of the abyss, a dark shadowy figure who in this movie cannot yet be brought in from the cold.

So who was this man who could break Cynthia’s heart – but couldn’t yet be talked about openly? Would he ever be invited to dinner – to the table of equality with the rest of his family?
Onyekachi Wambu, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk

Directed by: Mike Leigh
©: CiBy 2000, Thin Man Films Limited
Production Companies: CiBy 2000, Thin Man
Presented by: CiBy 2000
In association with: Channel Four Films
Produced by: Simon Channing-Williams
Production Executive: Phillip Kenny
Production Supervisor: Georgina Lowe
Production Co-ordinator: Stephanie Faugier
Production Accountant: William Tyler
Location Manager: Mark Mostyn
1st Assistant Directors: Jennie Osborn, Chris Rose
Script Supervisor: Heather Storr
Casting: Stern and Parriss
Written by: Mike Leigh
Photographed by: Dick Pope
Focus Puller: Lucy Bristow
Clapper Loader: Dan Shoring
Gaffer: Martin Duncan
Stills Photographer: Simon Mein
Edited by: Jon Gregory
1st Assistant Editors: Ian Seymour, Kate Mackenzie
Production Designer: Alison Chitty
Art Director: Eve Stewart
Production Buyer: Liz Griffiths
Property Master: Nick Rose
Costume Designer: Maria Price
Costume Supervisor: Allison Wyldeck
Make-up: Christine Blundell
Title Design: Chris Allies
Music by: Andrew Dickson
Flugelhorn: Michael Laird
Harp: Helen Tunstall
Viola: Ivo van der Werff
Cello: Chas Dickie
Double Bass: Chris West
Music Supervisor: Step Parikian
Sound Recordist: George Richards
Boom Operators: Loveday Harding, Orin Beaton
Re-recording Mixers: Peter Maxwell, Mick Boggis
Dubbing Editor: Sue Baker
Dialogue Editor: Derek Lomas
ADR/Foley Mixer: Ted Swanscott
ADR Editor: Derek Holding
Foley Walkers: Dianne Greaves, Michelle Greaves
Foley Editor: Bill Trent

Timothy Spall (Maurice)
Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia)
Phyllis Logan (Monica)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense)
Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne)
Elizabeth Berrington (Jane)
Michele Austin (Dionne)
Lee Ross (Paul)
Lesley Manville (social worker)
Ron Cook (Stuart)
Emma Amos (girl with scar)
Brian Bovell, Trevor Laird (Hortense’s brothers)
Clare Perkins (Hortense’s sister-in-law)
Elias Perkins McCook (Hortense’s nephew)
June Mitchell (senior optometrist)
Janice Acquah (junior optician)
Keeley Flanders (girl in optician’s)
Hannah Davis (first bride)
Terence Harvey (first bride’s father)
Kate O’Malley (second bride)
Joe Tucker (groom)
Richard Syms (vicar)
Grant Masters (best man)
Annie Hayes (mother in family group)
Jean Ainslie (grandmother)
Daniel Smith (teenage son)
Lucy Sheen (nurse)
Frances Ruffelle (young mother)
Felix Manley (baby)
Nitin Chandra Ganatra (Ramesh, potential husband)
Metin Marlow (conjuror)
Amanda Crossley, Su Elliott, Di Sherlock (raunchy women)
Alex Squires, Lauren Squires, Sade Squires (triplets)
Dominic Curran (little boy)
Stephen Churchett, David Neilson, Peter Stockbridge, Peter Waddington (men in suits)
Rachel Lewis (graduate)
Paul Trussell (grinning husband)
Denise Orita (uneasy woman)
Margery Withers (elderly lady)
Theresa Watson (daughter)
Gordon Winter (laughing man)
Jonathan Coyne (fiancé)
Bonzo (dog)
Texas (cat)
Peter Wight (father in family group)
Gary Mcdonald (boxer)
Alison Steadman (dog owner)
Liz Smith (cat owner)
Sheila Kelley (fertile mother)
Angela Curran (little boy’s mother)
Linda Beckett (pin-up housewife)
Philip Davis (man in suit)
Wendy Nottingham (glum wife)
Anthony O’Donnell (uneasy man)
Ruth Sheen (laughing woman)
Mia Soteriou (fiancée)

UK 1996
141 mins


Bleak Moments
Mon 18 Oct 20:40; Thu 28 Oct 18:00
Nuts in May
Wed 20 Oct 18:00; Sun 31 Oct 11:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman, Anthony O’Donnell, Stephen Bill and Sheila Kelley)
The Kiss of Death + The Permissive Society
Sat 23 Oct 12:50
Hard Labour
Sat 23 Oct 15:10
Sun 24 Oct 14:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman and Kate O’Flynn);
Mon 15 Nov 20:40
Sun 24 Oct 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh,
Marion Bailey and Phil Daniels); Thu 11 Nov 20:45
Secrets & Lies
Mon 25 Oct 14:30; Sat 6 Nov 19:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Sat 27 Nov 15:00
Abigail’s Party
Tue 26 Oct 20:50; Sun 14 Nov 12:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
High Hopes
Thu 28 Oct 14:30; Tue 2 Nov 18:45 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis); Thu 11 Nov 18:00; Sat 20 Nov 20:30
Life Is Sweet
Tue 28 Oct 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Thu 4 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 20:50
Grown-Ups + The Short and Curlies
Sat 30 Oct 17:15 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Tue 30 Nov 14:15
Home Sweet Home
Mon 1 Nov 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Sat 6 Nov 11:45
All or Nothing
Wed 3 Nov 20:30; Wed 10 Nov 20:30; Sun 21 Nov 17:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey)
Career Girls
Fri 5 Nov 20:50; Fri 12 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
Vera Drake
Fri 12 Nov 20:40; Fri 26 Nov 17:40 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis)
Sun 14 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Jim Broadbent); Sun 28 Nov 17:40
Another Year
Fri 19 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville); Mon 29 Nov 20:30
Four Days in July
Sat 20 Nov 11:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Bríd Brennan); Wed 24 Nov 14:15
Sat 20 Nov 16:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Mon 29 Nov 17:40
Mr. Turner
Sun 21 Nov 13:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and Dorothy Atkinson); Sat 27 Nov 17:30
Who’s Who + A Sense of History + A Running Jump
Sat 30 Nov 14:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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