Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, now on Criterion Blu-ray

There’s something very special about Mike Leigh’s family drama, Secrets & Lies. Every person on the screen appears to be a fully fleshed-out human being, and I’m not just talking about the main characters. Even actors with one or two scenes feel as if they have a history. You can care about all of them – even the ones you don’t like. it’s an extraordinary slice of humanity.

As the title suggests, the main characters – most of whom are related – have skeletons in their closets. There is no single protagonist. Ask four people who know the film who the major character is, and you’re likely to get four different answers.

Consider Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful London portrait photographer. He has a knack for getting the right expression on his customers’ faces. But he can’t get a smile from his deeply unhappy wife.

Maurice has a working-class, older sister, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn). She works in a factory and never married. But that didn’t stop her from birthing two daughters – the youngest of which still lives with her (Claire Rushbrook).

And then there’s Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist, black, adopted, and looking for the birth mother she never knew. Her search brings her to Cynthia and her white biological family.

It’s never mentioned in the film, but Maurice and Hortense have something in common. They’re the two most well-adjusted characters in the film, and they both deal with lenses, light, and the human face.

Every cinephile has a favorite long take; you might like the one in Goodfellas
or maybe Touch of Evil. Most of these famous scenes are celebrated by their amazing camera movement. But my favorite long take is in Secrets & Lies, and the camera doesn’t move in inch. It’s just two actresses talking, side by side, but it says more than any roving camera I’ve seen.

Mike Leigh uses a unique way to get the best performances from his actors. In his extensive rehearsals, he works one-on-one with actors, bringing out everything about the characters as he re-writes the dialog with them. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it.

After revisiting Secrets & Lies in reviewing this Blu-ray, I’ve decided it belongs in My A+ List of all-time favorites.

How It Looks

Criterion presents Secrets & Lies in a new 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Mike Leigh and director of photography Dick Pope. The correct 1.85×1 aspect ratio creates a very slight letterbox on a conventional widescreen television.

This isn’t the sort of film that cries for flashy cinematography, but film looks great. I could see individual hairs and clothing threads even in medium shots.

How It Sounds

Secrets & Lies is one of the last movies released without digital sound. It employed the then 20-year-old analog Dolby Stereo system, which used technical wizardry to turn two tracks into four virtual channels – three front channels and one surround.

Criterion presents this soundtrack in uncompressed two-track, DTS-HD Master Audio. If you have surround sound, turn on your receiver’s Dolby Pro Logic option to get the mix that Mike Leigh signed off on.

On the other hand, if Criterion had turned the four channels into four discrete tracks as they did for Hoop Dreams, you wouldn’t have to worry about getting the right setting.

But then, surround is not all that important in this film.

And the Extras

  • The fold-out booklet contains an essay by Ashley Clark, along with credits for the film and the Blu-ray. Among other things, Clark (who like Hortense is mixed-race) discusses controversy about the casting.
  • 2020 Mike Leigh Interview: 30 minutes. Interviewed by composer Gary Yershon. The interview appears to be done over Zoom, often cutting to stills and clips from the film. It includes some fascinating insights, including a discussion about a fight with the film’s French investors.
  • 1996 Mike Leigh interview: 89 minutes. Interviewed by Michel Ciment. Between Ciment’s French accent and the overall bad audio, you have to struggle to understand what they’re saying. No one seemed to care about the visuals; all we’re given to watch is one, famous still from the movie. I gave up a little more than a third of the way through.
  • 2020 Marianne Jean-Baptiste interview: 28 minutes. Interviewed by critic Corrina Antrobus. Like the first interview, it’s Zoom with clips. It gives you a sense of who the actress is and how important the film was for her.
  • Trailer: This almost makes it look like a comedy.

The Secrets & Lies Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, March 30. You can preorder the film on most online stores.