Secrets & Lies (film)

Secrets & Lies is a 1996 drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh. Led by an ensemble cast consisting of many Leigh regulars, it stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a well-educated black middle-class London optometrist, who was adopted as a baby and has chosen to trace her family history – only to discover that her birth mother, Cynthia, played by Brenda Blethyn, is a working-class white woman with a dysfunctional family. Claire Rushbrook co-stars as Cynthia's other daughter Roxanne, while Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan portray Cynthia's brother and sister-in-law, who have secrets of their own affecting their everyday family life.

Secrets & Lies
One of British theatrical release posters
Directed byMike Leigh
Produced bySimon Channing Williams
Written byMike Leigh
Music byAndrew Dickson
CinematographyDick Pope
Edited byJon Gregory
Distributed byOctober Films (US)
Release date
  • May 1996 (1996-05) (Cannes)
  • 24 May 1996 (1996-05-24)
Running time
142 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$4.5 million[2]
Box office$13.4 million[2]

The film was one of the competitors for the Palme d'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won three awards, including the Best Actress award for Blethyn and the Palme d'Or. Critically acclaimed, the film won numerous other awards, including the Goya Award for Best European Film and the LFCC Award for Film of the Year. At the 50th British Academy Film Awards, the film received seven nominations, winning both Best British Film and Best Original Screenplay. It also received five Academy Award nominations at the 69th ceremony, while Blethyn also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her portrayal.


Hortense Cumberbatch, a successful black middle class optometrist in London who was adopted as a child, has chosen to trace her family history after the death of her adoptive mother. After being warned by public officials about the troubles she could face by tracking her birth mother down, she continues her investigation and is baffled to learn that her birth mother is white; she does not resent this fact and wants to know more about her mother's past.

Hortense's birth mother, Cynthia Purley, is working-class and downwardly mobile. She lives with her other illegitimate daughter Roxanne, a street sweeper, with whom she has a tense relationship. Cynthia's younger brother Maurice is a successful photographer; he and his wife Monica also experience domestic difficulties. Monica comes across as abrupt, but later scenes reveal that she suffers from severe menstrual cramps and makes concerted efforts to placate matters and be contrite. She and Cynthia have never liked one another: Monica sees Cynthia as self-pitying and overly hysterical, while Cynthia deems Monica selfish. Maurice and Cynthia only occasionally see each other, despite not living particularly far from one another, but both are looking forward to celebrating Roxanne's 21st birthday. When Maurice pays a rare visit, Cynthia refers to Maurice affectionately as her little brother. It is made clear that Cynthia, despite having a job, relies on occasional handouts from Maurice.

Hortense rings Cynthia and starts to enquire about a baby called "Elizabeth Purley", born in 1968. Cynthia realises that Hortense is the daughter she gave up for adoption as a teenager and hangs up the phone in distress, but Hortense is still determined to learn more about her background. She rings Cynthia again and eventually manages to persuade her to meet her. When they finally do, Cynthia, not expecting Hortense to be black, insists that a mistake has been made with the birth records. Hortense convinces Cynthia to have a cup of tea so that Cynthia can look at some further documents concerning Hortense's birth. Cynthia remains convinced that Hortense is not her daughter until, suddenly, she retrieves a memory and begins to cry, stating that she is ashamed. Hortense then wants to know who her father is, to which Cynthia refuses to answer. The pair continue to converse, asking questions about one another's lives.

Soon Hortense and Cynthia have struck up a friendship; Cynthia, who is not in the habit of going out, suddenly finds herself doing so frequently, catching the attention of Roxanne, who is vaguely confused by her mother's secrecy. Cynthia gives Hortense a late birthday gift and mentions to her Roxanne's upcoming birthday party. She asks Maurice if she can bring a "mate from work" to the party. Cynthia relays this information to Hortense, who replies that, despite the likelihood of her feeling somewhat uncomfortable, agrees to attend and pose as Cynthia's colleague. The day of the party arrives and Monica makes an effort to be welcoming. Cynthia makes passive-aggressive remarks in passing about the seemingly high expenses of Monica's decorating their large house instead of concentrating on giving Maurice a child. Maurice tells Roxanne that she has a good brain and should be in college; Roxanne does not take this suggestion seriously. Everyone gathers for the barbecue and Maurice prepares the food. During the meal Hortense evasively answers the many questions that are put to her by the other guests. Also present at the party are Maurice's assistant Jane and Roxanne's boyfriend Paul, whom Cynthia has never met before.

When Roxanne blows out her birthday candles Cynthia begins to act in an exceptionally nervous manner; while Hortense is in the bathroom, Cynthia reveals that she is her daughter. Roxanne dismisses this claim, assuming that she has had too much to drink. However, when Monica inadvertently confirms this as true, Roxanne is horrified and storms out of the house. Maurice attempts to pacify the situation by confronting Roxanne at a nearby bus stop, and he and Paul manage to convince her to speak to her mother. While they are out, Cynthia and Monica quarrel over the latter's perceived selfishness; Cynthia says that Monica should "try bringing up a kid on [her] own," to which Monica says nothing. When Roxanne, Maurice and Paul return, Cynthia apologises to Roxanne profusely and explains matters: she got pregnant at fifteen and was sent away by her father; after the adoption she never expected Hortense to seek her out. Maurice then reveals that Monica is physically incapable of having children before losing his temper and complaining that he has spent his whole life trying to make people happy yet those he loves most "hate each other's guts". After witnessing all this Hortense tries to leave but Maurice stops her, admiring her courage for trying to find her own past, although he will not reveal who her father was either. Cynthia then explains that Roxanne's father was an American medical student vacationing in Benidorm whom she met at a pub. One morning, Cynthia awoke and he had gone. Cynthia and Monica reconcile.

After a while things have calmed down and Hortense pays a visit to Cynthia and Roxanne at their home. Hortense reveals that she always wanted a sister. Roxanne reveals that she would be happy to introduce Hortense as her half-sister notwithstanding the long explanations that it would entail. They gather for a visit at Cynthia's, and have tea.




Leigh was inspired by "people close to [him] who have had adoption-related experiences" to make a film about adoption.[3] Speaking on the subject, he stated: "I wanted for years to make a film which explored this predicament in a fictitious way. I also wanted to make a film about the new generation of young black people who are moving on and getting away from the ghetto stereotypes. And these were jumping off points for a film which turns out to be an exploration of roots and identity."[3]

Many Leigh regulars appear cameo appearances in the film, most of whom serve as clients at Maurice's job, including Peter Wight as the father in a family group, Gary McDonald as a boxer, Alison Steadman as a dog owner, Liz Smith as a cat owner, Sheila Kelley a fertile mother, Phil Davis as a man in a suit, Anthony O'Donnell as an uneasy man, Ruth Sheen as a laughing woman, and musician Mia Soteriou as a fiancée.

Secrets and Lies was partly filmed in Whitehouse Way, Southgate, London. Although Leigh is credited with writing the screenplay, most of the performances were improvised: Leigh told each of the actors about their roles, and let them create their own lines. The emotional scene in the diner, in which Cynthia realises that she is indeed Hortense's mother, was filmed in a single uninterrupted take of a little more than 7 minutes. Brenda Blethyn was not told beforehand that Hortense was black, making her reaction in this scene more authentic.


The film was released to universal acclaim; review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 95% of critics gave the film a positive rating, based on 37 reviews, with an average score of 8.6/10; the critical consensus is: "Secrets & Lies delves into social issues with delicate aplomb and across-the-board incredible acting, and stands as one of writer-director Mike Leigh's most powerful works."[4] On Metacritic, which uses a normalised rating system, the film holds a 91/100 rating, based on 27 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[5]

Influential film critic Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times gave Secrets & Lies four out of four stars. He wrote that "moment after moment, scene after scene, Secrets & Lies unfolds with the fascination of eavesdropping", and added: "[Leigh] finds a rhythm of life – not 'real life,' but real life as fashioned and shaped by all the art and skill his actors can bring to it – and slips into it, so that we are not particularly aware we're watching a film." He called the film "a flowering of his technique. It moves us on a human level, it keeps us guessing during scenes as unpredictable as life, and it shows us how ordinary people have a chance of somehow coping with their problems, which are rather ordinary, too."[6] In 2009, he added the film to his "Great Movies" list.[7]

Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film Leigh's "best and most accessible work to date" and remarked that "everyone's had these family skirmishes and confrontations in their lives, and it's remarkable to see them recorded so accurately and painfully on film. Leigh's marvelous achievement is not only in capturing emotional clarity on film, but also in illustrating the ways in which families start to heal and find a certain bravery in their efforts."[8] Similarly, Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles Times ranked the film within "the best of the 14 features Leigh" had directed by then. He found that Secrets & Lies was "a piercingly honest, completely accessible piece of work that will go directly to the hearts of audiences who have never heard of him. If film means anything to you, if emotional truth is a quality you care about, this is an event that ought not be missed [...] Unforced, confident and completely involving, with exceptional acting aided by Dick Pope's unobtrusive camera work and John Gregory's telling editing, Secrets & Lies is filmmaking to savor."[9]

The Washington Post author Desson Howe felt that the film incorporated all the "elements of humor, sweetness, cruelty and directness" of Leigh's previous films but dubbed Secrets & Lies "more emotional, tear-inducing and compassionate than its predecessors." He declared it "an extended, multilayered revelation, and you don’t get the full, complex picture until the final scene."[10] His colleague, Rita Kempley, called the film "a magnificent melodrama that draws both tears and laughter from the everyday give-and-take of seemingly ordinary souls." She noted that "Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste are a joy to behold in tandem, but Blethyn's endearing portrait is transcendent."[11]

It is also listed as the 40th best British film by the BFI.[12]


List of awards and nominations
Award Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Marianne Jean-Baptiste Nominated
Best Director Mike Leigh Nominated
Best Picture Simon Channing Williams Nominated
Best Writing (Screenplay for the Screen) Mike Leigh Nominated
AACTA Awards Best Foreign Film Simon Channing Williams Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role Timothy Spall Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Brenda Blethyn Won
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Marianne Jean-Baptiste Nominated
Best British Film Mike Leigh
Simon Channing Williams
Best Direction Mike Leigh Nominated
Best Film Mike Leigh
Simon Channing Williams
Best Original Screenplay Mike Leigh Won
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Won
Best Director Mike Leigh Won
Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award Brenda Blethyn Won
Palme d'Or Mike Leigh Won
Prize of the Ecumenical Jury Mike Leigh Won
César Awards Best Foreign Film Mike Leigh Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Best Director Mike Leigh Nominated
Best Film N/A Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Picture Mike Leigh Nominated
Empire Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Won
European Film Awards Best Film Simon Channing Williams Nominated
Florida Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama Brenda Blethyn Won
Best Motion Picture – Drama N/A Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Marianne Jean-Baptiste Nominated
Goya Awards Best European Film Mike Leigh Won
Humanitas Prize Feature Film Category Mike Leigh Won
Independent Spirit Awards Best Foreign Film Mike Leigh Won
Silver Ribbon Best Foreign Director Mike Leigh Won
London Film Critics Circle Awards Actor of the Year Timothy Spall Nominated
Actress of the Year Brenda Blethyn Won
Director of the Year Mike Leigh Won
Film of the Year N/A Won
National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Best Film and Top Ten Films N/A Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Best Director Mike Leigh Nominated
Best Film N/A Nominated
Satellite Awards Best Actress – Motion Picture Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Best Director Mike Leigh Nominated
Best Motion Picture – Drama Simon Channing Williams Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Female Actor in a Leading Role Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Brenda Blethyn Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Original Screenplay Mike Leigh Nominated

Positive pickets

This film was the subject of "positive pickets" by the adult adoptee rights organisation Bastard Nation, which used it as a vehicle to raise awareness of sealed birth records in the United States and Canada.[13]

Director Leigh and actress Blethyn met with Bastard Nation activists at a positive picket in Beverly Hills on 10 March 1997, where they were presented with Bastard Nation T-shirts.[14]

See also


  1. "SECRETS & LIES (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 12 April 1996. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
  2. Secrets & Lies at Box Office Mojo Retrieved 31 May 2013
  3. "Seven Questions For Mike Leigh, Director Of 'Secrets & Lies'". IndieWire. 27 September 1996. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  4. "Secrets & Lies (1996)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  5. Secrets & Lies at Metacritic
  6. Ebert, Roger (25 October 1996). "Secrets & Lies". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  7. Ebert, Roger. "Secrets and Lies Movie Review (1996) - Roger Ebert". Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  8. Guthmann, Edward (4 October 1996). "FILM REVIEW – `Secrets & Lies' Tells the Truth". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  9. Ebert, Roger (4 October 1996). "Secrets & Lies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  10. Howe, Desson (11 October 1996). "The 'Secret' of Leigh's Success". The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  11. Kempley, Rita (11 October 1996). "Human Right Down to the Heart". The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  12. "BBC News - Entertainment - Best 100 British films - full list". Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 27 February 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 September 2010. Retrieved 16 August 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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