HIghly acclaimed film by Mike Leigh. Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a working class British woman whose life has been a long series of painful disappointments. She's single with no romantic prospects and a dead-end job at a box factory. Her daughter Roxanne works as a street sweeper and is chronically bitter. Cynthia helped raise her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), who is doing well as a photographer, but she rarely sees him and usually blames his wife, Monica. One day, Cynthia receives a phone call from a woman named Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who claims to be the daughter Cynthia put up for adoption years ago. Cynthia initially reacts with panic, but she agrees to meet Hortense and is surprised to discover that she's a successful eye doctor - and that she's black. Cynthia is soon convinced that Hortense is just who she claims to be, and they quickly form a friendship that gives Cynthia a new source of emotional strength.

Released 1996, Directed by Mike Leigh


Brenda Blethyn
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Timothy Spall
Phyllis Logan
Claire Rushbrook

Simon Channing-Williams

Mike Leigh

Dick Pope

Andrew Dickson

Filmic techniques and character analysis

Visuals in 'Secrets and Lies' are used to a great extent to show contrasts between characters, invoke a specific feeling in the viewer and symbolise important feelings and thoughts of the characters; however it is the actors performance that portrays the characters to the high standard at which they are. The opening sequence shows the actor's names in the credits, as the camera scrolls around a choir scene, in the middle of a cemetery. It appears as if the actor's names are printed on the gravestones but as we scroll past them they fade away, directing the viewers attention once again at the burial the camera focuses on. The camera shots show mourners, mostly people of African origin, singing plain faced in unison. A close-up camera shot of Hortense, a woman with tears running down her face and not singing a note, shows the viewer that she shared a significant relationship with the person being buried. An overhead camera angle shows us the word 'mum' spelled out with flowers, and the viewer comes to the conclusion that the woman the camera has just cut away from is the daughter of the woman being buried. The transition of this scene and the next (funeral to wedding) invokes a grim feeling from the viewer as they accept complete sadness with newly wed bliss. This is the type of scene that shows the viewer circumstances without significant character interaction, and it provides a good understanding of plot rather than depth of characterisation.

Visuals are also used to show class differences: Maurice, a photographer, well paid and happy, goes home to his well-dressed wife and big house. His wife drinks casually and asks about his day, and when they reach the topic of his sister and their niece it is obvious they share different opinions. We then flash to Maurice's sister Cynthia, who unlike Maurice's wife Monica clings to her drink in desperation. The contrast between the picture of Roxanne happy, young and smiling on Maurice's mantle with the current Roxanne working on the street is also a good example of how Mike Leigh's visuals affect characterisation.

True to life settings serve this film by providing the viewer with information on a character's deeper self; interaction between characters provides the viewer with the shell with which characters present themselves to those around them. Mike Leigh uses setting to show class difference and different social situations. For example, when Roxanne is cleaning the street people in suits walk by and completely ignore her, demonstrating what a low class job this is and how those around her perceive it.

In the first few scenes of the film we are shown where four main characters live and work, and the class difference is made obvious to us: Maurice, with his housewife Monica, share the idealistic and predicted partnership for people above working class - they are the average wage earners. Cynthia works a boring job making paper boxes, and we can see this reflects how she lives and perceives her life - as one sided and plain as the her daily actions. The difference in housing also become apparent, as the average family lives spaciously in a six bedroom house while the two women that slave all day come home and sit really close to each other to talk. This claustrophobic effect clashes with the open spaced house so well that the notions the viewer receives are as intended, and contrast well.

Watching characters evolve throughout a movie is often the best way to perceive the inner working of their mind (moreover the actors persona). Cynthia is a character portrayed wonderfully; she clings to objects around her, stands at her job repeating the same action with such repetitive speed that we believe it is all she is good at and presents herself in a manner that screams working class industrial slave! Her makeup is overly applied; she doesn't mind getting drunk and has internal problems (shown to us quite well in the mirror scene). The desperateness of her character is highlighted well after Roxanne leaves with her boyfriend, and she is desperate to find out who he is. Roxanne is a character that is hiding her pain. She masks it through her seemingly impenetrable exterior, and goes about it to the extent that while confronted with the tenderness of her boyfriend she smokes while her and her boyfriend kiss, and continues to talk as if she severely dislikes him. While she argues with her mother, and sits cross-armed while her mother confronts her. She presents herself in an unappreciative manner, as if she does not care what those around her think; she also talks this way i.e. 'I don't need a bloke'.

It becomes clear that Monica has problems with being a housewife as she breaks down at the mention of dinner; her entrance to the scene saw her frantically vacuuming. She is well dressed, has a modest amount of makeup and holds her drink in a casual, non-dependent manner. Maurice seems to be the opposite of his wife, and is easy going in his job, friendly and constantly shows a sense of humour. When confronted by his wife's frustration he laughs, and she responds by breaking down. This event shows the transition between Maurice's and Monica's personalities, frantic and yet still with each other.

Camera work in relation to characterisation

The main thing I have noted in the way that shots have been composed, is the presence of light in each scene and the number of people in a frame at a single time. Usually when two people are talking, for example in the first scene where we see Maurice talking to Monica, Monica has a natural light source behind her, whereas Maurice has a synthetic lamp, and as the camera switches between them this becomes obvious. This is also apparent in the scene in which Hortense discusses her mother with her friend, as Hortense receives a different amount of light from the same natural source. The camera shots are also used to depict the level of comfort between people; in the scene in which Hortense and her friend lounge around drinking (after the fore-mentioned window scene) they are in the same frame, laughing and talking, discussing their philosophies of life. This is also used to the same effect in the scene in which Monica begins to shout at Maurice, as the camera only focuses on both of them at the same time when they are talking rationally.

Sometimes the camera is put in to a position that gives the viewer an impression of the great emotion portrayed by characters. This reigns true many times on Cynthia, for example in the scene in which she touches her breasts in the mirror the camera is behind her looking in to the mirror (as is the light source) and we can see everything she is seeing from her point of view. Another instance is when Cynthia is contacted by Hortense, and after Cynthia hangs up the camera angle switches to a view looking through the door, and soft light is reflected on Cynthia, showing how old she really looks and making the tears on her face shine, becoming much more obvious to the viewer.

Mike Leigh seems to be making a point of how class and colour difference and the discrimination that comes with them can affect family ties. The entire film is based around what is sure to become one big family, as each character slowly realises their dependence on others. This is highlighted beautifully in the scene in which Maurice talks about Cynthia to Monica, and after saying 'she gave me a lot of love' walks off, silenced and shocked by his own ignorance and his wife's intolerance of his sister. Hortense and the colour of her skin affect the way in which we perceive some of the other female characters; we get the impression that Hortense is shocked and appalled that her mother is white, and her reaction provokes sympathy up to the point in which Cynthia tells her 'don't come round here'.

Secrets and lies in Secrets and Lies?

Secrets and Lies is a film full of exactly what is suggested by the title. In essence this film is used to illustrate the adverse effects that secrets and lies can have within a family; the result is family dysfunction, unhappiness, and an unwillingness to accept change. The justification of this comes at the end of the movie, as after all the secrets and lies are brought to attention and rectified the family can function civilly to a small extent. Most characters are in denial of the truth to some degree, however some characters confront the truth (Hortense and Maurice are both characters who do this). Hence we can make a comparison of positive and negative aspects between those who confront the truth and those who do not.

Roxanne is not only in denial of her unhappiness, but the real reasons for it as well. She is very unhappy being a member of the working class and seems to blame Cynthia for this, however venting her anger on her mother only builds the steady rift that grows between them. This is highlighted in the argument between Cynthia and Roxanne, as the argument quickly turns to Cynthia's childhood and her dissatisfaction at having a daughter that acted the way Roxanne did. Cynthia starts the nastiness in the argument by stating, 'Then I got saddled with you. That was my downfall darlin'!' and Roxanne retorts, 'I didn't ask to be born!' Roxanne's rebellion against her mother is on display greatly in the scene in which Cynthia tells Roxanne, 'You wanna get yourself a bloke, that's what you wanna do!' but Roxanne seems to be completely against the idea. Then we find out that Roxanne is dating Paul, and although she has taken her mother's advice chooses to cut her off from contact with him completely, furthering the lack of contact in the relationship of Cynthia and herself.

Cynthia is a character that has lost her daughter (Roxanne) in so many ways, however she refuses to place the blame on anyone but herself; by lying to herself and refusing to accept the grim truth about her daughter, she suffers grave consequences prevents the relationship with her daughter from healing. Cynthia also denies the truth about herself and the youth she has lost. This is made obvious in the scene in which she tells Roxanne, 'Got legs like a teenager I 'ave.' This disallows Cynthia to accept who and what she actually is, and the more she lies to herself the more deep-seeded her problems become. Cynthia is a character who seems unable to take on new challenges or concepts. The initial denial about Hortense being her daughter and her apparent inability to remember with whom she had slept with ('Listen, I don't mean nothin' by it, darlin', but I ain't never been with a black man in my life!') not only creates uncertainty and an uncomfortable atmosphere with Hortense, but leaves Hortense feeling unappreciated until they manage to discuss the truth to a higher degree. This demonstrated the level to which the truth can fix things, because as soon as the truth is brought out in to the open and an understanding is reached, there is no reason to fight. Cynthia makes the mistake of taking Hortense to meet her family at the BBQ under the premise that she could lie to cover it up. Motivated by her family's obvious distaste towards her and Hortense's awareness of it, she confesses the truth about who Hortense actually is. She denies that bringing Hortense to meet her family in secret will hurt them, and as a consequence risks destroying the family. In addition to this, Cynthia also accepts Hortense as her daughter; two very different people need each other for the same reason, and lie to themselves about how easy it would be to accept each other.

Hortense is the character of reason in this film. She is constantly searching for the truth and as a result is always confronting it. In fact, the only time she denies the truth is at the Barbeque, as she lies about her job in the factory to aid Cynthia. This plants seeds of guilt and pressure within Hortense, highlighted in the scene where she goes to the bathroom and is visually shaken, leaning in the corner. She confronts the truth that her biological mother is white, and although she at first has problems with this accepts it and deals with it. This is the complete opposite to what Cynthia does, as she forces the truth to the back of her mind to avoid confrontation. The acceptance of the issue of colour allows Hortense to meet her mother. This is at first constructive as they fill the void in each other's life, but eventually destructive dues to Cynthia's denial of the truth (the party is a culmination of this lie).

Monica is a character that denies the truth, but uses the cover of her home to disguise her unhappiness. The house is a culmination of years of pain and guilt over not being capable of baring children; Monica chooses to bury her problems in her house, and is dedicated to it just like she would be to her own child. Upon presenting her house to Jane and Cynthia, Jane says 'You're so lucky Monica!' however this is reversed later as Monica discovers the perfect house cannot compensate for the child she had always yearned for. Instead of bringing her pain out in to the open, Monica thoroughly dislikes Cynthia because she can and has had children and does not look after them. This denial of truth hurts Monica's relationship with Maurice as he watches two of the people he loves most in the world fight for a reason that has yet to be uncovered.

Just like Monica, Maurice does not talk about the fact that she cannot have children. When Maurice finally explodes and confronts the secrets and lies flowing around he admits to Monica (in reference to her incapability to bare children), 'I love you to bits, but it's almost destroyed our relationship, you know it has!' This causes Monica to break down, and admit the real reason that she dislikes Cynthia so much. When Maurice finally confronts the truth and explodes, he highlights how the secrets and lies has destroyed his family, pushed them apart, and made them hate each other. Up until this point, Maurice had denied the truth. He heavily involves himself in his work, and used outside distractions from his home-life to deny the fact that his life is hell, and his relationship is being killed off. He imagines that making people happy should make him happy, though he is not.

The two extremes of denial become evident through Maurice and his Photoshop. An attractive blonde woman with a scarred face on one side bitterly complains to Maurice about her experience in a car accident, but maintains that 'it's not my fault!' By doing this she stays in denial, and can never recover. Shortly after this Maurices ex-business associate Stuart enters and attempts to debunk all that Maurice has earned through his many hard years at work. Maurice tells him, 'If there's any success in this shop, it's down to me,' and Stuart continually repeats, 'I'm not a tosser!' Both the blonde girl and Stuart represent the worst effect that denial of the truth can have on people. They become bitter, resentful and can never recover or even move towards recovery. They remain as symbols of what the main characters of Secrets and Lies are throughout the entire film.

Secrets and Lies is a film in which the last phrases are the best summary for any argument concerning the effect that lies can have: Hortense is talking to Roxanne, saying 'Best to tell the truth innit?' she replies 'Yeah, it is.' Hortense finishes by saying. 'That way, nobody gets 'urt.'

Unless the truth is brought out in to the open, nothing can be confronted, and thus nothing is solved.

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