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  • John Parker

Secrets & Lies: Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Mike Leigh’s Palme d’Or winning masterpiece ‘Secrets & Lies’ arrives on the UK Criterion Collection label this week. Featuring a breathtaking performance from Brenda Blethyn, this intimate and beautifully observed drama delivers arguably the most convincing portrayal of suburban British life—in all its everyday beauty, mundanity, and misery—ever seen on film.

Following the recent passing of her adoptive parents, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young and successful black woman decides to trace her biological mother. She is shocked to discover her birth mum is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white working-class factory worker, hollowed out by life, and struggling to get through each and every day.

Cynthia’s other daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) fights with her constantly. They spend their evenings in their cramped council house in a fog of Benson & Hedges smoke, drinking cans, and scowling at the hand life has dealt them. In a more salubrious part of town lives Cynthia’s estranged brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful photographer, living in a fancy detached house with his houseproud wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) with whom he shares a seemingly frosty relationship.

Leigh invites us in to all of their domestic lives, slowly and naturally bringing them all into each other’s orbit. The first scenes between Hortense and Cynthia are startling. Cynthia thinks poor Hortense has been led up the garden path by the adoption agency. Someone surely must have made a mistake. “I mean… just look at you!” Then a memory long forgotten emerges. The moment of realisation is incredible. We all know the ‘Mike Leigh method’ – months of rehearsal and improvisation, drilling the actors to create the most natural and realistic portrayals possible. Boy oh boy does it pay off here.

The film eventually arrives at an intimate family reunion at Maurice and Monica’s house to celebrate Roxanne’s 21st birthday. Cynthia brings Hortense with her, telling everyone she is a friend from work. In a sensational unbroken scene, as they all drink and eat and talk over one another, the family start to probe at Hortense’s story. The secrets and lies begin to spill out.

Exquisitely capturing the deep range of complexities and raw emotions of family dynamics, ‘Secrets & Lies’ is a humane cinematic masterwork. Emotionally devastating and hysterically funny in equal measure. It is a dazzling spectacle of direction and performances, and surely one of the great pieces of British realist cinema.

The disc comes with two hours of comprehensive Mike Leigh discussions, across two very different interviews. The first is from 2020 with composer Gary Yershon, discussing the themes of the film. The second is an extremely in-depth audio interview from 1996 with film critic Michel Ciment.

Another new interview recorded for this release sees Marianne Jean-Baptiste talking to critic Corrina Antrobus about her recollections of the film. She has terrific insights into the development of ‘Secrets & Lies’, the character workshopping, and the ‘Mike Leigh method’. Finally, there is the original trailer.


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