Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is an accomplished young black middle-class Optometrist who was adopted as a baby. When her adoptive parents die, she decides to track down her biological mother.
What she hadn’t anticipated was that her search would lead to Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a boozy white, working-class woman saddled with her argumentative and morose illegitimate street-sweeper daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook).
Cynthia’s life is in such disrepair that she can’t complete a sentence without breaking down into uncontrollable weeping – a sad state that is exacerbated by her deeply troubled daughter, who seems to hold her mother in contempt for all the wretchedness in her own life.
Cynthia is also attempting, without much success, to regain the trust and affection of her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), who lends her spasmodic moral and financial support. Maurice is a successful wedding and portrait photographer whose prissy suburban house is the obsessive delight of his hysterically nervous wife Monica (Phyllis Logan).
There is a delicate balance between anguish and comedy in the scenes between Hortense and Cynthia, especially one long scene (shot in a single spellbinding take) in a coffee shop. What seems at first to be an impossible reconciliation becomes a friendship so solid and trusting that the maternal bond seems almost a happy accident.
When Cynthia incites Hortense to a family barbecue at Maurice’s house in honour of Roxanne’s birthday, however, the stage is set for an emotional battlefield of confrontation and accusation. The scene in which Timothy Spall breaks the silence and gives one of the best performances of his career, is both heartbreaking and liberating, for the characters and for us.
It’s a long film, and visually a little static, but the depth and intensity of concentration result in a film of extraordinary emotional riches. The superb cast includes Phil Davis, Alison Steadman and Liz Smith in small supporting roles.
Secrets & Lies won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Best Actress award for Brenda Blethyn.
Even though the film’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA, most of the script was improvised during filming.
Elias Perkins McCook