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Secrets and Lies (1996)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Secrets and Lies (1996)
35mm, colour, 140 mins
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompaniesThin Man Films, CiBy 2000, Channel 4
ProducerSimon Channing-Williams
WriterMike Leigh
PhotographyDick Pope
MusicAndrew Dickson

Cast: Timothy Spall (Maurice); Phyllis Logan (Monica); Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia); Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne); Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense); Elizabeth Berrington (Jane)

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A young black woman, whose adoptive parents have died, sets out to trace her natural mother.

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Secrets and Lies (d. Mike Leigh, 1996) looks at the lives of Black and White Britons and tries to imagine a way in which both can begin to share the same family blood link.

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young Black professional woman, decides, on the death of both her Black foster parents, to seek out her biological mother. When she approaches the relevant social services department, she discovers for the first time that her biological mother, Cynthia, is white.

Secrets is full of other surprises. It bravely subverts stereotypes and challenges easy assumptions. For instance, it allows another insight into questions of race and class. When Hortense eventually meets her biological mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), she finds a socially inadequate woman who has allowed her dreams to be crushed by the limited horizons and realities of her life. The contrast between their lifestyles is even more acute. Hortense has a professional job and owns her own immaculately decorated flat, while Cynthia works in a factory and lives in a shambolic and crumbling house. Her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), is a road sweeper, and she leans heavily on her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) for emotional support.

Hortense's presence haunts this film. Until Cynthia has made peace with her, she will not be completely at peace with herself. The climax of this process of soul searching is reached at a family birthday party for Roxanne where, all the family's secrets and lies are laid bare. Amidst the tears and new truths, Hortense, the 'dark stranger', is finally welcomed into the white British family.

Hortense goes forward to her white family - but in order to do this she has to go alone. We see no pictures of her black foster parents, and her two foster brothers are seen only once, arguing with each other about their inheritance, but never talk to Hortense. But it is not just her black foster family (read Black culture) who must remain 'strangers' - the black man, Hortense's real father, remains somewhere at the edge of the abyss, a dark shadowy figure who in this movie cannot yet be brought in from the cold.

So who was this man who could break Cynthia's heart - but couldn't yet be talked about openly? Would he ever be invited to dinner - to the table of equality with the rest of his family?

Onyekachi Wambu

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Video Clips
1. Aaah lovely! (1:49)
2. Start of journey (4:38)
3. Café (4:54)
4. Let's celebrate! (1:43)
Blethyn, Brenda (1946-)
Davis, Philip (1953-)
Jean-Baptiste, Marianne (1967-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Smith, Liz (1921-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
Channel 4 and Film
Female Protagonists