Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

I felt a bit depressed as I walked out of Secrets & Lies, the latest film written and directed by Mike Leigh. Not because I hadn't enjoyed the film -- it's terrific, as the rating above attests; and not because the film is grim or pessimistic or in any way downbeat -- it concludes with a scene of quiet hopefulness, and compared to Leigh's Bleak Moments or Naked, it's positively sunny. No, I was mildly depressed because Secrets & Lies, for all of its virtues, is not an unqualified masterpiece. That's how high my expectations for Leigh's work have become; he is, in my opinion, the world's greatest living (and currently working -- I have to add that caveat until Billy Wilder dies) filmmaker. Like all of his previous films, Secrets & Lies grew out of improvisations; Leigh begins his process with only the vaguest idea of what the subject of his film will be, and allows his actors to create their characters from whole cloth. Unfortunately, he's hampered a bit this time out by the melodrama inherent in his initial idea: white working-class mom meets the baby she gave away at childbirth, and finds that she's a well-to-do black woman. That's an actual, high-concept plot -- something Leigh's previous films decidedly lacked -- and while he nimbly avoids most of the pitfalls it potentially presents (the very thought of a Hollywood film on the subject makes me queasy), he relies more than usual on narrative suspense, which is not his strong suit. And some aspects of the movie feel like Leigh on auto-pilot: Roxanne, the mother's other (white) daughter, is like a watered-down version of Jane Horrocks' Nicola from Life Is Sweet, and the conclusion of this film echoes the finale of that one, only with considerably less poignancy. And then there's...there, now, see how heightened expectations can wreak havoc? I've spent this entire review carping about minor flaws in a film that's unquestionably one of the year's best; it's only in comparison with Leigh's other films that I find it wanting. Let me start over. [Clears throat] Though perhaps a bit less spectacularly brilliant than Leigh's three previous features, Secrets & Lies is typically intelligent, assured, complex, provocative, hilarious and moving; and the actors who appear in it, as always, are uniformly extraordinary. Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall (the latter virtually unrecognizable as the same man who played the ridiculous Aubrey in Life Is Sweet), in particular, richly deserve the Oscar nominations that they, like Horrocks and David Thewlis and Alison Steadman and Ruth Sheen before them, will not receive. Go see it at once. (There, that's more like it.)