Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Innit Sweethearts?

Mike Leigh is a love or hate director. Truly. I think he is that polarising. I remember when Happy-Go-Lucky opened the Sydney Film Festival last year, I knew people who tried to watch it, knowing they hated his films, and got through fifteen minutes before leaving. Then, I know people who love his films, who will gladly watch anything he puts out. I fall into the latter camp, but I can totally see why people would hate him. His films are very demanding on the viewer.

I won’t go too much into how Leigh makes his films, as it’s pretty well documented. He favours a heavily rehearsed and improvised approach, where secrets and plot points are revealed to the actors as they go along. I guess this is why his performers are often so incredible - they really have to inhabit the characters in order that they can maintain the continuity over months of development and shooting, without knowing what is really happening around them. Much like life, really. But yes, he’s sent Brenda Blethyn to an Oscar nom for Secrets and Lies, Imelda Staunton to one for Vera Drake and Sally Hawkins to one for Happy-Go-Lucky. Oh, wait, that last one isn’t true. AND WHAT A SCANDAL THAT IS.

But moving on.

Leigh’s major breakout film across the pond was Secrets and Lies, his '96 film launching Brenda Blethyn onto the world with her turn as Cynthia, along the way receiving five Oscar noms and that pretty leaf from Cannes, the Palme d’Or, among many others including the Best British Film BAFTA. An aging single mother to Roxanne, Cynthia has a strained relationship with her sister-in-law Monica (Phyllis Logan), meaning she doesn’t get to see her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful photographer, anywhere near as often as she’s like. Roxanne has recently started to see a new man, leaving Cynthia virtually alone.

All of this changes with a phone call from Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste in another Oscar nominated turn), bringing an unsettling revelation and reminder of the past. Hortense fills the lonely void in Cynthia’s life, bringing her much happiness, but it’s a dangerous lying game they’re playing, one certain to come dramatically to an end at Roxanne’s 21st birthday party, held at Maurice’s house.

I’ve heard criticism of Blethyn as too hysterical. I can see where that’s coming from, but, really, no one does hysterical like she does it, and here, she does it perfectly. She carries such loneliness and emotional baggage on her shoulders for the entire film (and it’s not a short one) flawlessly. You truly feel for her every time she sheds a tear. Here she is, she has tried to do everything to help her daughter and create a family, and it’s all coming to nought. The one shot at happiness that she has, that brought by Hortense, is not only fringed with danger, it is positively plated in it. This happiness can only last so long - but while it does last, you feel so, so good for Cynthia. The difference is remarkable.

The supporting cast are similarly excellent. Spall plays the younger brother very well. He tries to be supportive, though as the younger and more successful sibling this is always difficult, but is nevertheless somewhat curtailed by his wife’s lack of enthusiasm for a relationship with his family - from her posh heights, they must seem like an appalling bunch of deadbeats. But she also has her secrets, and its exposure, amongst the rest of the revelations in the climactic scene, is equally explosive. Jean-Baptiste is wonderfully stoic in the face of this family meltdown of which she isn’t really a part, but is there for and forced to experience - and a lot of it is seen to be her fault, an unfair laying of blame, but in the circumstances, who else are they going to blame?

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this film. That’s three hits from three for me and Mike Leigh. It’s an excellent socio-realist study of family, backed up by astonishingly real performances and a terrific, oft-improvised script. 4.5 stars, and I can’t wait for the next offering from this master of British cinema.

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