Secrets & Lies (1996): Mike Leigh’s Most Accomplished Film

Considered by many to be Mike Leigh’s best (and most commercial) film to date, Secrets & Lies world-premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the top award, the Palme d’Or, as well as the Best Actress for Brenda Blethyn.

At Oscar time, Mike Leigh scored a triangle of nominations but no award. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay (see below).

Like other Leigh works, “Secrets & Lies” is a slice of life, an ultra-realist drama with comedic touches that’s brilliantly written, directed, and acted by all around.

Dealing with challenging family issues, neglectful mothers and dutiful daughters, painful separations, adoption, and so on, in the hands of another director the film might have become a tedious and gloomy melodrama about anguish, defeat and failure within the British working-class.

As a writer and director, Leigh has made a personal film that doesn’t succumb to the generic conventions (and constraints) of the emotional family melodrama.

After the death of her adoptive mother, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young black woman in London, finds out that her birth mother is a white middle-aged woman, Cynthia (Blethyn).

Taking initiative, Hortense calls her mother, whose first reaction is shock and bewilderment. But she agrees to meet her at a neutral place, a coffee shop.  When the two femmes meet, Cynthia thinks there’s been a mistake (she later realizes that she had a one-night stand with a black man).

After getting to know each other, Cynthia invites Hortense to the birthday party of her other daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) so that she could meet the rest of her family.

Nominally, the plot suggests a broad melodrama, the territory of TV’s soap operas, but in the hands of Leigh, a master of nuance and ambiguity, “Secrets & Lies” emerges as a serio comedy of the high order, emotionally touching but neither heavy nor pretentious.

Leigh can be bitter and funny at the same time, and in this movie, he takes the risk of mixing pathos and comedy, which elicits a complex reaction, which mixes laughter and tears.

As writer, Leigh has created each of his half a dozen characters as a remarkably idiosyncratic individual.  As director, he uses a deceptively simple style, one that relies on long scenes often shot in single takes.

This strategy presents tremendous challenges to his cast, and it’s a pleasure to report that each actor meets his/her challenge admirably. Leigh is known for spending month of research, preparation and work with his actors on the screenplay and individual characterization—until they really achieve intimate familiarity with their parts—though once the text is written down, there is no more improvisation.



Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn)

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste)

Maurice (Timothy Spall)

Monica (Phyllis Logan)

Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook)

Jane (Elizabeth Berrington)

Dionne (Michele Austin)

Paul (Lee Ross)

Social Worker (Leslie Manville)

Stuart (Ron Cook)



Produced by Simon Channing-Williams

Directed by Mike Leigh

Screenplay: Mike Leigh

Camera: Dick Pope

Editor: John Gregory

Music: Andrew Dickson

Production design: Alison Chitty, Georgina Lowe

Costume design: Maria Price

Running time: 145 Minutes


Oscar Alert:

Oscar nominations: 5


October release

Produced by Simon Channing-Williams.

Director: Mike Leigh

Screenplay (Original: Mike Leigh

Actress: Brenda Blethyn

Supporting Actress: Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The 1996 Oscar‑winning epic, “The English Patient,” is an intelligent adaptation by Anthony Minghella of Michael Ondaatje’s novel about a mysterious man (Ralph Fiennes) who is badly wounded in a World War II plane crash in the African desert.

Sweeping most (nine) of the Oscars in 1996, “The English Patient” easily beating out the other four contenders:  “Jerry Maguire,” the only Hollywood movie, and a comedy at that, in competition; the Coen brothers’ American crime indie “Fargo,” Mike Leigh’s British working class drama “Secrets & Lies,” and the Aussie biopic “Shine.”

Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for “Fargo.”