Sunday, October 23, 2011

Secrets & Lies

When today's movie started, I was expecting to be really bored by it. I've been in the mood for extremely scary and gross horror movies, and this movie - Secrets & Lies, directed by Mike Leigh in 1996 - is sort of slow and domestic. I figured it would be hard to get into, and I would be distracted by all sorts of other things I'd rather be doing. I found myself really engrossed in the movie, though, and really enjoying the story and characters.

It was too bad that the copy I had of this was an old VHS tape. I bought it new and still in the shrink wrap, but the quality was still really bad. I wish it was better - I hated the muted, washed out colors and other stuff that made it less fun to watch. It was tough to get into the movie, but once I did, the pay off was worth it and I really could relate to the story on a lot of levels. I thought it was a really real and meaningful family-drama sort of film, although I can't say that I've ever watched another family-drama sort of film.

The movie is about, as you could imagine, all sorts of secrets and lies that family members keep from each other. Hortense (who is black), adopted at birth, seeks out her birth mother. Her search leads her to Cynthia, a lower-class white woman with a daughter, Roxanne. Roxanne and Cynthia don't have a great relationship and both get on each other's nerves. Cynthia's brother Maurice is a photographer, and his wife Monica holds secrets of her own. Cynthia develops a relationship with Hortense, and eventually invites her to Roxanne's birthday party as "a mate from work". Of course, all these secrets need to come out eventually, and they do...

I thought the ellipses would make it sound less boring. The fact is, the plot sounds way boring. There are a lot of small moments of getting to know the characters and learning to understand them. I liked that, though. It was very realistic and normal. You got to know them and accept them for who they are, however flawed. At first I had trouble with this slowness, with getting into the film. I felt sort of bored or like the accents were too funny, and it was hard for me to get myself to focus on it. Really, it felt like half of the movie was really boring and not related to the plot I thought I would be seeing - but it really helped when the actual conflict at the birthday party begin

Despite how meh I felt during some parts of this movie, I was really affected by the birthday party scene. I guess I could relate to the frustration that Maurice voices once secrets start coming out - how is it possible that a family can love each other but keep so many secrets? It was really powerful for me, and I felt really emotional when I watched it. I guess I feel like we all have a certain persona that we wear - our work personality, our family personality, our "relaxed at home" personality - and sometimes, despite how we love our families, we don't let our real selves seep into our family persona. We keep things from the people we love, either to make them or ourselves feel better, and I've felt that very real frustration. Like, why are we not being honest about our lives, when these are the very people that are supposed to stick by us, no matter what? All the parts of the movie that I felt were boring before were perfect now, because I knew who everyone was so well and was totally involved in this scene. I felt their pain, their emotion. Getting to know the characters was slow for me, but it paid off and I was really moved by what I saw. I felt like I knew them and I didn't even realize it. I was really happy with this film.

I was shocked when I read on Wikipedia that Mike Leigh basically explained the idea of the movie to his actors and let them do the rest of the work. I never, ever would have imagined that anything was improvised. It felt so real and polished and made so much sense that it seemed impossible that it was mostly improvisation. When I think of improv, I guess, I think only of comedy, so it was new for me to see improv used in a drama, as well. If you had told me that fact before I watched the movie, I would have been skeptical that it would work - but now, wow! It worked so well, and the actor's performances felt so real and wonderful. I honestly barely have words for how amazed I feel about this. It seems easier to play off of someone's jokes and comedy than someone's serious drama, I guess, and it seems like an pretty incredible feat. Knowing this just enriches an already good movie.

It's not the most fun movie, or most exciting, but it is really good, especially when you realize it was mostly improv. For me, it was very meaningful and struck a chord that I could relate to personally. I was occasionally bored by some parts of it when we first get to know all the characters, because it didn't come together and make sense until the birthday party scene. When Maurice says that he's spent his whole life making other people happy, we understand, because we have seen how hard he works at pleasing people as a photographer (and before this scene, the many shots of him working seemed...gratuitous). It's not one of my favorite movies, but I really enjoyed it and related to it. Worth checking out, I think. I certainly never heard of this director or improv drama until today.

Have any thoughts about Secrets & Lies? Share them in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Secrets & Lies
Buy it on Amazon - link goes to VHS because the DVD is like, $35

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