If you want to find a real auteur, track down Mike Leigh, shown above in an exultant moment after winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes for Secrets and Lies. Leigh is best known in his native England, where his character-driven plays, TV films and features (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked) won him an Order of the British Empire title, in 1993. In America, the shy, secretive Brit (he builds his scripts after months of private improvisation with actors) is admired mostly by cultists. Look for Secrets and Lies, which opened the New York Film Festival, to blow his cover.
Transcendent and moving, not to mention blisteringly funny, Secrets and Lies is something very special indeed. At first glance, Leigh's most accessible and heartfelt film sounds like a soap opera: Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a lonely, boozy, white-trash factory wage slave who takes a call from Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a stranger claiming to be the daughter Cynthia gave up at birth. They agree to meet at a cafe. Hortense, 27, is a dignified London optometrist. She is also black. Cynthia is unbelieving, ashamed. "It ain't true, sweet'art," she says, her cockney accent thick with panic as she launches into a crying jag that ends in a devastating realization of the truth.
Blethyn, who played Brad Pitt's repressed mom in A River Runs Through It, inhabits this lovably disreputable character so totally that any qualms about reverse stereotyping soon fade. Her unerring performance ranks with the year's finest. Blethyn took acting honors at Cannes and should be up for more prizes as the awards season heats up. She is an emotional whirlwind – brimming with bawdy humor, ready compassion and raw need.
A high level of acting is a Leigh hallmark. Jean-Baptiste is a find. Her scenes with Blethyn cut to the bone as mother and daughter move from wariness to warmth. Conflict enters in the form of family. Cynthia has another daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), a road sweeper who lives with her mother but rarely bothers to talk to her. Cynthia is also estranged from her younger brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), a wedding photographer whose childless snob of a wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), prefers to keep Cynthia at a distance. Spall, the eccentric restaurant owner in Leigh's Life Is Sweet, gives a performance of amazing tenderness. Maurice loves and deeply misses his sister. He convinces his wife to allow a 21st-birthday party for Roxanne to be held in their new house. Cynthia, proud of her secret daughter, asks to bring Hortense along. Both agree to lie about Hortense's identity – she'll be introduced as a chum from the factory. The stage is set for a birthday party on a land mine.
The writer and director handles the ensuing explosion of laughs, tears, rage and reconciliation with rare skill and immediacy. Leigh, a world-class filmmaker at the top of his form, has sometimes been accused of patronizing his working-stiff characters. But the pain of Maurice's cry – "Why do the people I love most in the world hate each other's guts?" – has a poignancy that hardly smacks of exploitation. At Cannes, Leigh said his award was "encouraging for those of us who are trying to make films about people, relationships, real life, love, passion, caring and all the things that matter." Secrets and Lies matters.