dir. Mike Leigh
Up until the midpoint of Secrets & Lies (1996), where a young woman’s search for her birth mother culminates in a neurotic phone conversation and an awkwardly staged, tense reunion at an empty diner, Mike Leigh’s cozy coterie of miserable working-class characters try in vain to suppress agonizing truths. A marriage’s happily robust façade starts cracking when the husband, as he does with his customers, can’t cajole a smile out of his wife; a mother and daughter seem unable to sit together for a cup of tea without getting into a fight. Only with the advent of an outsider—the aforementioned long-lost daughter—does the family unleash their true feelings towards one another.
Often hailed as one of Leigh’s finest works, this domestic melodrama brought him and his leading thespian Brenda Blethyn the Palme d'Or and Best Actress Award at the 49th Cannes Film Festival. These prestigious awards may have proven the actress’ richly expressive and naturally sympathetic performance, as well as the filmmaker’s astuteness in his portrayals of the characters, but above all the film’s greatest asset is its glorious ensemble cast. Among the underappreciated, Oscars- or otherwise, are Phyllis Logan and Claire Rushbrook as the fragile wife and the petulant daughter respectively. And there’s Timothy Spall, of course; a dozen of shots and images in the movie owe their indelibility to Spall’s turn as a reserved, tender and fatigued husband. Yesterday, Mr. Spall finally earned his much-deserved acting award for his depiction of a landscape painter at this year’s Cannes closing ceremony. After re-watching one of the best films of 1996, one naturally expects Leigh’s latest Cannes contender to have the same filmmaking prowess and performance by Mr. Spall.