Secrets & Lies (1996)

Englishman Mike Leigh’s films, though often comedies, are never optimistic about the amount of emotional damage families can and will inflict on themselves, and this Oscar-nominated mini-epic might be his definitive statement on the matter. A portrait of a decimated British working-class family on its way down the crapper, Secrets & Lies revolves around a well-off portrait photographer (Timothy Spall), and his middle-aged sister Cynthia (the incendiary Brenda Blethyn), the family’s crucible and an aging, dim-witted slut with a grown daughter no one’s sure who fathered (Claire Rushbrook). The dung starts hitting the proverbial fan when a modest, intelligent young black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) discovers through an adoption agency that Cynthia is her birth mother, and contacts her. The characters are genu151 | m ly eun on III ine, and so sharply realized they cut like knives. People in Leigh’s films simply don’t behave like other movie characters—they are, only and completely, themselves, not types or ideas created to serve the story. (Leigh notoriously begins his moviemaking process with the actors and characters, and then develops a script.) You can’t not find them convincing, and you’ll have to admit that your family is at least in better shape than this crew.

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