Accidental Origins

Accidental Origins

Accidental Origins

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Sept. 24 1996 3:30 AM

Accidental Origins

Mike Leigh's SecretsandLies.

Secrets and Lies

Directed by Mike Leigh

Channel Four Films/City 2000/Thin Man Films

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Mike Leigh, the tragicomic English director whose last film, Naked, won him belated fame in America, has a working method so unique it's easy just to ponder that and forget about the films themselves. He starts without a script or even a story line, merely tossing his actors a premise. Through three months of rehearsals, the actors probe motives, test reactions, try out distinctive habits of thought, movement, and speech. The result is a screenplay that traces not so much a plot as the course of an emotional crisis. Except for some punching up for structure and comic bang, it mirrors as closely as possible a phenomenon rarely presented on screen: the real-life behavior of human beings.

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But none of this explains why Leigh can bring us close to tears just 30 seconds into a film, before we know these characters from Adam. Here's how he does it in Secrets and Lies: To the strains of a mournful score for brass and woodwinds, a camera pans across a crowded cemetery and settles on a gathering of black people. A white wreath with the word "Mum" written across it in scarlet flowers is lowered into a grave. The gathering begins to sing "How Great Thou Art," and we see a close-up of a solemn young woman silently crying.

The scene is mysterious and saturated with pity, not just for this stranger but for all of us who will lose our loved ones, then die ourselves. It reminds us that Leigh at his best is a renderer of moments--the wisest and deepest observer, probably, among living directors. And it's good that the reminder arrives so early, because the actual story in Secrets and Lies--the story that emerged over the course of the intensive experimental three-month rehearsal--is never again this subtle. The young woman at the funeral is Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a 28-year-old black optometrist; the deceased was her adoptive mother, an immigrant from Barbados who raised her with great care and attention. Now that this nurturer is gone, Hortense decides, for reasons that seem less organic to her levelheaded personality than necessary to the film, to seek out the woman who gave her up at birth.

A search for a birth parent can be a gimmicky device, but Leigh downplays melodrama and uses the quest as a catalyst for an emotional experiment. Someone meeting her mother for the first time at the age of 28 is allowed to ask questions with point-blank directness, and Hortense's mother is in need of shaking up. She is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a red-faced chain smoker who works at a cardboard-box factory. When Hortense first calls her, Cynthia doesn't want to talk, but loneliness wins out, and soon, they meet for coffee. Leigh sits them on the same side of the table, facing the camera, so we can follow the tense see-saw between small talk and hysteria. Hortense is serious; Cynthia is chatty; Hortense warms up, and then--you can see Blethyn and Leigh working this out in rehearsal--Cynthia is undone by a manic two-minute giggle.

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Hortense's arrival doesn't do much for her, at least not at first, but it quickly pulls the misery of Cynthia's life into focus. She has a second daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), whom she raised on her own, and who has grown up sullen and uncommunicative. Cynthia herself feels neglected because, a long time ago, she put aside her life to care for her little brother, Maurice. As a result, she's still as needy and grasping as a child. For his part, Maurice (the rotund, lovable Timothy Spall) has grown up to be a successful portrait photographer whose marriage to cold, selfish Monica (Phyllis Logan) is in danger because she can't conceive. Unconsciously, this prosperous, childless couple covets Roxanne, and everyone has grown used to treating Cynthia with contempt.

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Unlike Hortense, everyone in this family is white, which underlines the film's notion that we're all the helpless products of frighteningly random beginnings. This is a favorite idea of Leigh's--it lay beneath David Thewlis' tortured Dostoevskyan monologues in Naked--and it's interesting to see the existential theme translated so literally to the domestic scene. We're led to believe that Hortense's black father was a bad egg, but her color itself is hardly remarked upon. It's basically a gag, a visual joke on the ridiculous fact that we spring from another person's body, and a variant on Roxanne's cry that she "didn't ask to be born!" So much for race. But some of the social stereotyping that marred Leigh's previous films is back in full force. The rich are once again selfish and sterile (though not nearly as exaggerated as they were in Naked), and the poor are messy and vulgar but blessed with fertility. To these he adds a new one, embodied in the Monica-Cynthia duality: A woman's life is measured by her success or failure at the rearing of children.

And the famous method? The acting is filled with quick surprises and daring choices--especially that of the wheezing Blethyn, who risks alienating the audience with a grating animated-cartoon-bunny voice. But after the setup, the story unfolds with a Neil Simon-esque predictability. Moment by moment Leigh liberates his actors, but we always know where they're headed. Hortense's centeredness and sympathy lend Cynthia new strength, which gradually awakens Roxanne from her funk. Anger that has smoldered for decades erupts neatly and economically in a climax that feels more like an EST seminar than real life--and Maurice and Monica are finally forced to deal with the weakness in their marriage.

Meanwhile, dozens of scenes that stand out at the time as heartbreaking or shocking or hilarious get steamrolled. Leigh is like a teen-age genius with a few bad habits and a gift for seeing things the rest of us never will, which may be why the funniest moments in Secrets and Lies turn out to have nothing to do with the story. They're outtakes--an afternoon session with wildly disparate clients at Maurice's portrait studio. A child insists on picking his nose; a fat woman unwisely exposes a garter belt; the female half of a couple scowls and the male half wears a foolish but touching grin. These shots are brilliantly composed, with the situational richness of Edward Hopper and a caricaturist's strong, quick humor. A new biography, The World According to MikeLeigh by Michael Coveney, stresses Leigh's early natural talent as a cartoonist, which he seriously considered pursuing. Years later, it's still his greatest gift.

Sarah Kerr writes about movies and books for Slate.