If anything gets inside your system while watching Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, it’s the way that the heroine, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a broken-down London factory worker in her early 40s, blares out the word ”sweetheart.” At times, she seems to tack it onto the end of every sentence, a brash, caterwauling endearment (”Sweet-hawt!”) that’s both a wail of love and a howl of need. Boozy and ignorant, so maternal she’s nothing but maternal, Cynthia has only one way to connect, and that’s to reveal how desperate she is. Naturally, she sends everyone around her scurrying to the far corners.

Leigh’s last film, Naked (1993), featured David Thewlis as a literate gutter sociopath who subjected everyone within earshot to his apocalyptic hectoring (he was like Johnny Rotten screaming for his pacifier). Secrets & Lies is something richer, mellower, and more inviting: a warped kitchen-sink comedy about a family that has blasted itself apart and now jams itself, however awkwardly, back together. Cynthia has a daughter (Claire Rushbrook) who despises her (yet takes after her, too — they speak in matching whines), as well as a brother (Timothy Spall) who tries to escape her grip by burrowing into a fragile domestic cocoon. Leigh brings their resentments, dreads, and dreams out of the closet. The film climaxes with a family barbecue that features a pileup of cathartic revelations, each unwrapped like another Christmas present. In his cranky British way, Leigh has made a feel-good soap opera, and watching the inspired performances of Spall, his bearded face an egg of sadness, and Blethyn, who weeps and rasps and then weeps some more, her emotions burning right through her skin, we seem to be witnessing a ritual of redemption: life’s secret losers dignified by their pain.

And still, for all its tenderness and rage, its yeasty flow of feeling, Secrets & Lies is built around a device so fundamentally obnoxious I found myself fighting the movie even as I was enjoying it. The film has a second heroine, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a black yuppie who, having lost her adoptive parents, decides to seek out her biological mother. It turns out — surprise! — to be Cynthia. The moment these two get together (they form a gushing bond within 10 minutes), the movie invites us to cruise on a wave of self-congratulatory piety.

As a character, Hortense is sweet, becalmed, stoic, polite. Does she have anger? Neurosis? A wild streak of humor, perhaps? In two decades of moviemaking (Nuts in May, Life Is Sweet, Naked), Mike Leigh has never created a character who didn’t have some of these things. Yet Hortense displays a soul perpetually tuned to cozy-comfortable room temperature. She is, to put it bluntly, a black saint — Cindy Poitier — and her relentless passive dignity is counterposed with the loud, shabby suffering of all these workaday white louts. Leigh’s most brilliant sleight-of-hand trick was to make the contrast appear simply to be one of class. In the end, though, it’s the spectacle of races uniting idyllically, crossing lines of social habit, friendship, and even biology, that lends Secrets & Lies its sentimental catharsis. The picture is a crowd-pleaser, all right, but, for all its appeal, a naggingly sanctimonious one. It’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? for the culturally correct ’90s. B

Secrets & Lies
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