Provost's Film Series
November 12, 2003
Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996, Secrets and Lies also secured an Academy Award nomination for Best Film. Such mainstream recognition was a surprising turn of affairs for director Mike Leigh, known as a "maverick rogue of British film-making." Born in Lancashire in 1943, Leigh briefly pursued an acting career before settling in the London Film School. During the 1970s he spent time working for the London stage, also developing a series of short films and projects for the BBC. In 1992 Naked, a grim, non-redemptive vision of one man's personal descent into despair, thrust Leigh into the international spotlight. Secrets and Lies also offers glimpses into the gritty, cockney world of underprivileged Londoners, but the film is far gentler, even magnanimous. Critics almost universally praised the film for tracing the ragged edges of human emotions, all the while keeping its sense of humor and hopefulness.
Like many of Leigh's previous films, Secrets and Lies began with only the broad outlines of a script, as the actors improvised scenes. At the center of the story is the reunion of a young black woman with her white birth mother. The two actresses did not meet, in fact, until they first filmed the scene. Some of the actors were unaware of the racial themes until they first encountered the black woman, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, during the actual filming. In a weaker script, the racial differences might have become the melodramatic hub of the story, but Leigh's characters respond to the surprise with far greater subtlety and complexity. Many observers attribute the emotional depth to the improvisational style, which requires actors to respond to situations rather than recite prescribed lines. Leigh constantly emphasizes the dynamic, fluctuating nature of his stories. "Secrets and Lies," he observes, "is about roots and identity, the ever changing image we have of ourselves and each other, and our compulsive need to reaffirm constantly who and what we are, and where we came from. It is also a tale of love and caring and deep longings, and of the awesome relentlessness of the passage of time."
Much of the tone of the film derives from the camera work of Dick Pope. The lighting is consistently clear, stark and warm, more reminiscent of the stage than most feature films. The camera brings the characters and their foibles into the stark light of day, but it also stays in the sunlight and avoids changing moods by shifting into shadows and darkness. Often scenes use a single camera with longer, unedited shots, as Leigh and Pope let the silences linger in order to build emotion. Andrew Dickson's chamber music also is intentionally simple and unobtrusive. The narrative is straightforward, without the many flashbacks and brisk changes of scene that distinguish more conventional storytelling techniques. In essence, the lighting and the stable, unrelenting camera make it impossible for the characters to retreat to the dark corridors with those secrets and lies that have controlled their past lives. Optometry, flash photography and window frames become prevailing visual metaphors and part of the film's moral texture.