Criterion Review: SECRETS & LIES (1996)

Mike Leigh’s Palme d’Or-winner is riveting as ever on a long-awaited Criterion Blu-ray

The release of a new Mike Leigh film is always a cause for celebration, as are the eventual rediscoveries of his work by The Criterion Collection. With five films to date in the Collection spanning his five-decade career, Leigh’s collaborations with Criterion has proven to be as fruitful as those he shares with his actors during these films’ creation. Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s Palme d’Or-winning drama focused on the consequences of a revealed parentage to a group of interconnected suburban Londoners, is perhaps the best in Leigh’s filmography–and comes to Criterion with a diverse and insightful package after many years out of print.

After the death of her adoptive mother, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to take the plunge and officially unseal her records to try and reconnect with her birth mother. Neither Hortense or her mother Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) are prepared for who they might meet. Hortense is middle class with a thriving, jovial optometry career; Cynthia is an Eastender living in poverty with her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), isolated from her more successful brother Maurice (Timothy Spall). What’s more — Hortense is Black, while Cynthia is white. Hortense and Cynthia’s reappearance in each others’ lives is initially traumatic, bringing up long-buried memories for Cynthia while Hortense bears the weight of her ensuing emotional outbursts. But Cynthia’s fear and trepidation slowly gives way to an affection that’s both maternal and platonic — and before too long, the two are enjoying nights on the town together. Hortense, still going through her own grieving process for the woman who chose to raise her, finds solace in reconnecting with the woman who chose not to do the same. But Cynthia’s new vivaciousness raises eyebrows with much of her already-fractured family — who she’s never told about Hortense’s existence, let alone her sudden re-emergence. Before too long, Cynthia begins to withdraw from Hortense, knowing that at some point, these long-buried Secrets & Lies must give way to the truth.

I first saw Secrets & Lies as part of my semi-retired Catching Up with the Classics series, as my last Letterboxd-based review before I began to write for Cinapse full-time. On that first viewing, I marveled at how Leigh’s process of improvisation and collaboration with his actors led to unparalleled glimpses at real human drama — from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them character snapshots in Maurice’s photography studio to the powerhouse acting showcases of unbroken takes at some of the film’s climactic moments, especially the scene between Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste where Cynthia remembers the circumstances of Hortense’s conception — which lends this edition its cover image.

Revisiting this film in what’s hopefully the waning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s remarkable just how prescient Leigh is in his observations of human behavior. The characters of Secrets & Lies manage just as well to be isolated and disconnected from each other, often in self-imposed prisons of their own design. Cynthia and Maurice, despite having raised each other as children after the death of their own parents, can never bring themselves to call the other to check in or lend a friendly ear. Maurice is trapped with his wife Monica, where they retreat into the re-decoration of their empty six-bedroom home or another bottle of wine rather than discuss their increasingly tense relationship. On the opposite end, Cynthia vents endlessly about her problems to Roxanne, who’d rather stew in either misery or muted happiness rather than stagnate in complaining about her own past mistakes. Even Hortense spends much of Secrets & Lies’ first half on the precipice of contacting Cynthia, stopping herself short before she can make that furtive connection. At times, it feels like such an act may be a betrayal towards her now-deceased adoptive parents, to say nothing of the upheaval Hortense is already in sorting through the detritus of what belongings remain in their wake. Hortense is also fully aware of the trauma such outreach might bring with it, thanks to an amazingly tender scene featuring a one-scene performance by Leigh veteran Lesley Manville’s social worker. But Hortense’s bravery in reconnecting with Cynthia doesn’t just bring about much of the film’s more positive (if secretive) changes — it reveals the fierce social magnetism that belies much of Leigh’s beautifully flawed characters throughout his filmography.

Secrets & Lies is constructed in small, snapshot-like scenes with his characters in small isolated fragments. Even though the scenes are often full of people, sometimes captured from a distance amid real London street life, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope’s eyes are laser-focused on the actors within them — reducing everything else to a living, always roving sea of bodies. The effect turns each of Leigh’s scenes into small pockets of humanity, just one blip of joy or sadness among hundreds of equal parallel narratives that are abuzz at any moment. Each of these characters shares their own want to connect — Hortense to Cynthia, Cynthia to Maurice, Maurice to the women he cares about most — but often find mundane reasons to stay isolated. Over Secrets & Lies’ runtime, though, more and more of Leigh’s characters find ways to intrude on these little moments of drama — often despite the characters’ own best efforts to keep their actions hidden from everyone else. It’s as if the secrets they keep from each other have a consequential magnetism of their own that naturally seek out their own resolution — which in turn spurs the act of connection that the characters both crave and dread in equal measure. It’s a brilliant and bizarre dance to see play out over Secrets & Lies, and builds to a climax that’s as heart-wrenching as it is cathartic.

While a roundtable retrospective is understandably tempting to imagine in a COVID-less alternate universe, Criterion’s disc and transfer of Secrets & Lies more than matches the film’s revered reputation.


Criterion presents Secrets & Lies in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a new 2K restoration performed by MK2 and supervised by director Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope. The restoration is accompanied by a 2.0 surround English audio track, remastered from a 35mm magnetic track. English SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film, but not the supplements.

Long out-of-print in the U.S. until this edition, Secrets & Lies looks remarkable in this new transfer. Bright hues and sharp contrasts, creating a naturalistic look throughout rich with detail. Of note are the actors’ eyes catching nearby light as they either avoid or fish for each other’s glances, as well as the varied fabrics of their lived-in, individualized costumes. There’s a healthy amount of film grain, but at a level that doesn’t distract from the picture overall. The audio track is also nicely mixed for a stereo track, expectedly prizing Leigh’s dialogue amongst a soundscape of city and suburban domestic buzz.


  • Mike Leigh (2020 Interview): In a Zoom conversation with regular Leigh composer Gary Yershon, Leigh discusses the origins of Secrets & Lies major themes, the focus on the characters’ vocations and how they express the characters’ inner lives, an insightful clarity towards how Leigh’s improvisational process (and key withholding of information from his actors therein) led to the development of the film’s most revelatory (yet still scripted) sequences, and how the more fragmented, isolated segments of the film are carefully designed to inform the story’s greater thematic tapestry.
  • Mike Leigh (1996 Interview): In a feature-length phone interview with film critic Michel Ciment, Leigh explores further origins of the creation of the film’s characters, his recurrent themes (especially in the context of a follow-up to Naked), and his organic relationship between himself, his actors, and their stories.
  • Marianne Jean-Baptiste: In a Zoom conversation with film critic Corrina Antrobus, Jean-Baptiste discusses the legacy of Secrets & Lies, how Hortense’s position on the periphery of the Purleys’ family life creates rich opportunities to illuminate both groups of characters, the creation from the ground-up of Hortense, and the unpredictable nature of figuring out what elements of the Leigh rehearsal process may make their way into the final cut of a film.
  • Trailer for Secrets & Lies’ theatrical release.
  • Booklet featuring an essay by Criterion Collection Curatorial Director Ashley Clark. Clark’s essay, Seen and Not Seen, explores the film’s themes of vision and perception, Leigh’s skill at efficient character development, the initial controversy of the film’s treatment of race, a reflection on the opportunities seized and missed when it comes to Secrets & Lies’ depiction of Black British life, as well as an examination of the film’s enduring resonance.

Secrets & Lies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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