Mike Leigh’s vision is tantamount to heresy in some circles, redrawing Western motifs away from individualist assertions while also retaining the individual soul in human bodies often upended by a filmmaker like Robert Altman, who sometimes privileges a social determinism in his films. In Leigh, in a quasi-Renoirian way, individuals slide and slip around each other as they construct themselves – and as the camera envisions them – interactively, rather than individually. Individual personalities abound, but the contrasts are defined relatively rather than absolutely. Unlike in most films designed for Westerners weened on figments of Enlightenment liberalism and the ultra-dominance of the individual mind, people are not fixed, asocial beings with stagnant psychologies in Leigh – people become themselves through their interaction with the world, and with others. He saves us from ourselves, cherishing individual difference without cavorting into the deathly realms of tendentious individual supremacy.
In simpler terms, Leigh’s cinema is a raw, tested celebration of humanity as a conglomerate of moving parts, uneasily united in disharmony but greater than any individual cog precisely because those cogs can fight back or turn sideways or move in the wrong direction. People add a personality, a proclivity for wistful adventurousness into the machine of life, pushing daily experience into uneasy realms that lack the privilege of explicable overarching themes or answers. The adventure that concerns Leigh most devoutly is the journey toward mental fluidity, toward occupying, however tentatively, the mindset of another person not as a sacrifice to one’s own individuality but as a buttress to it, a reminder that the “stuff” of a human is constructed constantly and socially through active conflict.
Leigh’s vision, it should be noted, is informed by the British realism (the kitchen sink variety), but his milieu confronts the style more as a series of liquid guidelines rather than an unmoving structure one must submit to sycophantically. A dramatic crescendo for Leigh (although not necessarily his cinematic masterpiece, which might remain Life is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy, or High Hopes), Secrets and Lies tips its hand slightly toward realism relative to Leigh’s earlier, more farcical comedies of human manner. But Leigh doesn’t wallow in the sort of grubby despondency that has come to tower over British cinema in the minds of many onlookers.
Instead, his vision of experience is multifaceted and generous even in its disheveled patchwork of human lies (not-quite-truths is more appropriate) whispered out of fallible flesh. In this case, the two principles are Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a young black optometrist who finally seeks out her birth mother, played by Brenda Blethyn, who had nearly forgotten about her after decades of pursuing day-to-day living. Other characters pop up, most notably the mother’s younger, more successful brother played with an uncommon generosity by Timothy Spall (who appears in many of Leigh’s films and never plays even a distant rumor of the same character). But Leigh’s characters are always fundamentally social beings, defined not as individuals who reduce themselves through social contact (as in most Western films) but as social beings. The lies they wield to each other aren’t decrements to their characters, or indicators of their powerlessness to other people, but active attempts to fluidly navigate the realm that makes them human.
Leigh’s strengths are in inestimable display throughout Secrets and Lies, most notably his refusal to reduce the portrait to psychological study (Hortense, the optometrist, is given nary an explanation for her choice, with Leigh emphasizing the communal interaction between people rather than the vagaries lying with individual minds). If pressed, one might consider Secrets and Lies slightly more melodramatic than Leigh’s typical work, but his eavesdropping sense of the contraption of character interaction is on display with as much panache as ever. As per usual, Leigh distances himself from the self-conscious “wit” that was all the rage in the mid-’90s, resisting gestures toward explication and final destination, proposing that life is instead a continually fluxional journey fraught with unforeseen consequences and conciliation. The few-set drama unfolds like a minefield of hidden and unheralded complication, characters unfolding new leaves of meaning and experience onto the piece as time passes by.
Most importantly, Leigh’s style is satisfyingly cautious and preliminary in a way more overtly showy films resist (it is the antithesis of a Tarantino, to name the most obvious cinematic darling of the time of Secrets and Lies’ release) – as a film, it seems to be constantly testing its own waters rather than diving in. It doesn’t withhold from such indulgent, obvious gestures completely; personally, I’m inclined to say that the film shifts into a drowsy, melodramatic respectability once or twice, a mode Leigh’s earlier films resisted with their scurvy, occasionally scabrous mix of bile and empathy. The ever-shifting character dynamics of Life is Sweet are slightly more programmatic and obvious here, but still uncommonly satisfying, even if Leigh has hidden his usually sterling, revealing proclivity for graphic matches elsewhere. This habit inherently results in a less cinematic film, perhaps the most stagebound of all of Leigh’s non-television works, leaving it to his mastery of actorly charisma to decenter the film and keep the piece from stagnating.
Thankfully, Mike Leigh happens to be arguably the greatest working actor’s-director in the Western world, so the stylistic limitations of the film are hardly brought to the forefront. Leigh’s skill with actors is more than merely circumstantial, shifting a normal film’s directed, visual energy to more prismatic, uncontainable pathways where our focal point – and any individual scene’s purpose – cannot be prescribed through one channel of meaning. Character energy radiates from different human bodies, resisting the pathways of their lives through the slightest of movements. Meaning is implied through Jean-Baptiste’s hesitant leaning inward toward her mother, or intimated in the inflexibility of Spall’s stunted gait, as though he is weighed down by the air itself. The various meanings battle for supremacy in the frame, ultimately forming an uneasy mass greater than the sum of any one individual part.
Unlike many films, which seem prepackaged for linear meaning, Secrets and Lies actively seems to be discovering its meaning throughout, relying almost entirely on mixed, plaintive emotions that reflexively counter the dogma of gigantism in cinema. Leigh has always held his films at bay from the magnitudinous pull of a direct-path toward meaning, striving instead for a centrifugal roughness that doesn’t so much withheld meaning as strive to discover it as it moves along toward an unknown, outward-spinning destination. The director had done and would go on to do better, but Secrets and Lies is nonetheless a vision of life unknown to other directors, and thus inimitably valuable.