There’s one sort of film that the British have always made better than anyone: the domestic realist film. In what is often referred to as the “kitchen sink” style, movies such as Alfie and The Lonliness of the Long-Distance Runner feature the simplest plots and the broadest English accents, where the conflict is usually brought on from everyday situations executed forcefully by great actors. The kitchen sink drama is nearly dead today; domestic realism just doesn’t sell tickets like it used to. But one man who is keeping that style of drama alive today is Mike Leigh, and the finest example of his work is Secrets & Lies.
Secrets & Lies starts with the ghost of a high concept, as a black Englishwoman with the fantastic name of Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buries her last living adoptive parent, subsequently decides to find her birth mother, and discovers that her mother is white. But from the first scene with birth mother Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), where she has a blistering argument with her daughter, it’s clear that most of the drama in this picture will happen around Cynthia’s kitchen sink. Cynthia and Hortense will strike up a friendship, but not without forcing Cynthia to confront the secrets in her life that she had previously tried to ignore.
Both Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste were nominated for Oscars, which is exactly as it should be. Blethyn’s part has all of the tears, all of the shouting, all of the hysterics. But without Jean-Baptiste’s masterful underplaying in the scene with her, it would all go to naught. The reason that Cynthia works as a character is because she makes people uncomfortable, and not just when she’s upset: even a relatively happy Cynthia seems to create awkward silences in every room she enters. Thus, that discomfort and awkwardness needs to feel painfully real when delivered by the other actors. If anything less than an Oscar-caliber performance were delivered by Jean-Baptiste (or Timothy Spall as Cynthia’s brother Maurice), then all of Blethyn’s big emotional moments would come off as hammy scenery-chewing.
It’s also interesting how many ways Leigh finds to indirectly indicate the themes he’s getting at here. Even with the stellar performances from the two lead actresses, evenually all of Cynthia’s pain and Hortense’s discomfort would become tiresome. So instead, we get the fascinating concept of Maurice owning a professional photography studio, cajoling both families and individuals to ignore their particular drama just long enough for the camera’s flash to go off. Each particular photo taken during these sequences is a short story in itself; some comedy, some tragedy, others not so easy to categorize. Taken together, they make it easy to see how someone like Cynthia could live the way she does: most people just have to hold their pain down long enough to say cheese, but Cynthia suppresses it continually until it flies out, razor-sharp and uncontrollable, cutting those closest to her along the way.
The photography subplot eventually plays out with the return of the business’ former owner, in a scene which left some Movie Klubbers confounded. At first it seems like the scene is completely extraneous to the adoption story that is the center of the film. However, it’s better to look at that scene in the same way that you might look at the Mike Yamagita scene in Fargo: sometimes, we need to see another person in an extreme situation before we can look at our own drama in a different light. Only by watching someone else’s denial can Maurice understand how deeply in denial he is, and the rest of his family along with them. Again, an impressive way for Leigh to strike at his central themes without simply drowning the audience in Blethyn’s tears.
Even more impressive are two scenes, each shot in a single unbroken take,* where Leigh’s mastery over his actors is shown in its totality. Leigh’s directing style is improvisational: in many of his films, he will give his actors instruction as to what their characters want or feel in a scene, but he will script very little dialogue. So first, Blethyn must confront the truth that he daughter she had given up has returned, and Hortense must realize the sort of pain and drama she’s getting herself into, in a mostly improvised scene seven minutes long. This scene practically seal the Oscar nominations for both actresses in it, and yet the movie is barely half over by this point.
Then, later, the climactic dinner party is shot in a single take. Seven different characters eat and trade small talk over a rather small table while the camera just sits there watching them, and that is impressive enough. However, it’s also clear to the audience by this point in the film that the dinner party will be the place where everything eventually gets revealed and everyone’s hidden pain emerges. So the single-take shot is amazing for all of the ways in which it subtly shows how the battle lines will be drawn. A furtive glance here, a pointed comment there, all of it bringing the tension between the characters higher and higher, but without being too obvious.
In the end, all of these details combine together to make it seem like we aren’t even watching a movie. The actors are so effective, and the skill level of the director is so high while being so subtle, that the movie-ness of the entire enterprise fades away. This is what kitchen-sink realism aimed for at its peak: the idea that the simple struggles of working-class British life needed to be a movie as much as anything that the royalty might do. With Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh is portraying drama more intense than most of us have to put up with in our lives, but it happens so simply and easily that, as a superb final line tells us, it feels just like real life ought to.
Reviewde by Mark Young
*Note that today, single-take shots can be longer and easier, thanks to digital cameras. Leigh was shooting on film, where a blown take could mean hours of work and thousands of dollars’ worth of film wasted.