From Dad’s Army to Downton, Ken Loach to Merchant Ivory, British TV and film is obsessed with class. This obsession lands squarely at the door of Mike Leigh whose notorious TV play Abigail’s Party (1977) pitted people on different rungs of the class ladder against each other with tragicomic results. Secrets & Lies is his second most famous work (it was nominated for five Oscars).
Often accused of sneering at the no-man’s-land where the lower middle class and upper working class converge, Leigh delights in exposing silly snobberies and petty pretentions, yet his work always comes from a place of huge affection.
Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a put-upon working-class drudge who works a mind-numbing job in a cardboard box factory. Her moody daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) snaps at her like a crocodile. Out of the blue Cynthia gets a phone call from well-mannered Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who claims to be Cynthia’s long-lost daughter, given up – sight unseen – when she was a baby by the 16-year-old Cyn. When Cynthia and Hortense (the former disconsolate at her drab life, the latter bright and bubbly in hers) meet in a greasy spoon to negotiate their new relationship and look over the adoption paperwork Cynthia is convinced that there must be a mistake. Hortense is black and Cynthia is white.
Race is added to class for an unholy stew, no more so than when Cynthia invites the long-lost daughter to belligerent Roxanne’s 21st birthday party en famille, thus setting off unintended, cringe-worthy emotional explosions. There are moments of sublime comedy (as when Cyn and Hortense first meet bind-date style). And there’s a fabulous sequence where Cyn’s high street portrait photographer brother Maurice’s (Timothy Spall) subjects pose for their pictures with all-too-fake smiles.
A better title for the film might have been Parents & Lies. There’s an array of unhappy families where parenthood seems to hold the key: the cluttered room full of Cynthia’s father’s things she can’t bear to throw away, the estrangement between various parents and grown-up children, Maurice’s wife (Phyllis Logan), and her longing for a child.
The film is heartfelt as it veers from a comedy of manners to theatre of embarrassment. The humour is often laugh-out-loud and at other times things get genuinely moving. The casting and performances are pitch perfect, even if Blethyn hovers on the edge of caricature.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 26 Apr 2021