Introduction to Film and Television theory 3. Secrets and Lies (1996), directed by Mike Leigh Secrets and Lies is primarily a film based on characters. Discuss how characters are Revealed and developed in the film through narrative structure and cinema techniques. Use specific scenes from the film to illustrate you " re answer. Secrets and Lies is a film that can make an audience feel like they are not watching a film at all, but that they are looking in on everyday people going about their normal lives.
Director Mike Leigh uses carefully chosen cinema techniques and narrative structure to achieve this effect. In the beginning we appear to be seeing exerts or slices of different peoples lives, going about their business. But as the film develops, these seemingly unconnected plot strands twist together, gathering tension and momentum. As this happens, we learn much more about each character through their interaction and become emotionally involved. Mike Leigh also works with a lot of improvisation in his movies. The actors work with him over a long period of time to create a new person / character , discussing every part of their personality, life and history.
During filming, they are asked not to just recite lines, but have conversations. This adds to the feeling of reality and spontaneity. As mentioned, In the beginning of the film (the set-up) we are introduced to the main characters, and the world, or different worlds, that they live in. The non-dietetic orchestral music we hear in the opening funeral scene sets the tone for the whole movie. It is sad, lamenting, but also has something joyful behind it.
This music starts up again whenever a new character is introduced. First, Maurice. We see him in his role as photographer- nice, gentle, joking, coaxing a bride-to-be to smile. The music continues and the film cuts to a shot of Monica intensely stenciling, then a close-up of her hand, pounding away with the paintbrush. This gives an initial feeling that something is pent up inside her. The next shot is a long shot of the exterior of Monica and Maurice's nice, neat house which cuts to the interior, including Monica, which is perfectly decorated.
This is building up an image of these two characters being fairly well - off. This is added to by the medium - long shot of Maurice admiring Monica's new silk two-piece outfit. A feeling of mystery is created about Roxanne and Cynthia as Monica and Maurice talk. Monica talks positively of Roxanne and negatively of Cynthia. Maurice says, "I think that's the last time she's ever smiled" of Roxanne, and music starts up. The film cuts to a long shot of Roxanne street - sweeping.
Her hair is messy and she looks unkempt. The next shot is a close-up of her face, showing her deep scowl, relating to Maurice's words. Our introduction to Cynthia is a long shot of her working at a machine in the background, with boxes pilled in the foreground. Everything is in dull blue and grey tones. The music continues, adding to the sadness and dullness of the scene and connecting it to the other introduction s. A medium long shot of Cynthia and her machine making cardboard boxes shows the monotonous repetitive action, then cuts to a close-up of her face, showing her unhappy, defeated expression.
We first see Hortense in her job as an optometrist working with a young girl. The camera alternates between close-ups of her and of the girl. We take in her kind smile, her gentleness with the girl, her upper-class accent. Her hair is in a well-styled bob and she wears gold jewelry. The film cuts to a long shot of Hortense leaving the office, the music starts up, and we take in more information about her- she is professional, friendly with the secretary, and wears a stylish black suit. One of the most original parts of the way Secrets and Lies is structured is the inclusion of transitional scenes in Maurice's photographic studio, which appear throughout the film.
These scenes expand on Maurice's kindness, humor, and passion for photography. He brings out the best in people. The sequences, cutting between portrait shots and shots of Maurice serve as a metaphor for one of the film's main themes - the rituals and defense mechanisms that are used to hide the unpleasantness of life, and make dysfunctional relationships tolerable, thereby maintaining the facade of happiness. Maurice instructs his subjects to 'put on their best face' for the camera, sometimes with startling contrast to the reality of the situation. (Leong, A. web).
One way characters are developed in our minds is through details, which reoccur and build up in significance throughout the film. We see the contrast of Cynthia's cluttered, run down house with Maurice's new, spacious house. We also see Monica's frantic vacuuming and obsessively maintaining a perfect neat house. This image builds until we realize that it is perhaps an attempt to cover up her anger and frustration. Shots of Monica's huge mood swings every 28 days, and details of tampons, hot water bottles and painkillers reoccur and build up the idea that Monica cannot conceive children. The film begins to invoke our sympathy for Cynthia by revealing her deep sense of loneliness.
No one really cares about her, she has no compassion, fun or affection in her life whatsoever. This is picked up through the music, which builds in a over-the-shoulder shot of Cynthia's reflection in the mirror. We see her putting on her face cream and touching her breasts in a pent up desire for affection. This feeling of loneliness is enhanced by the previous shot of Roxanne in bed with Paul.
These feelings are expressed the most in the scene where Maurice comes to visit Cynthia. The two are in their late father's bedroom, and we see mid shot of Cynthia's face as Maurice says "look at all this junk - what are you going to do with it?" This obviously brings up buried emotions and Cynthia starts to cry, gripping the door with her hand. She utters "Give us a cuddle, Maurice" and we see a lengthy mid shot as Cynthia rushes to grasp Maurice in a hug. She is hysterical, he is the only one who shows any care or compassion towards her in the whole world. The camera zooms in slowly to show more of Maurice's expression, giving us the feeling that he loves Cynthia but doesn't really know how to deal with her raw emotion. The camera then zooms out as Cynthia begins to calm, and the tension abates.
When she asks Maurice, "You ain't gonna make me an auntie now are ya?" we see a lengthy close-up reaction shot of Maurice. We can feel the tension, the silence, the struggle on his face as he tries to find the words to tell her about the problems conceiving. In the end he decides against, and they leave the room, Cynthia slamming the door on the painful memories. A high-angle shot looking down from the top of the stairs shows Maurice and Cynthia in the doorway, shadowed. The hallway looks dark and dingy and Cynthia is subdued, stooped over as Maurice hands her money. He wants to look after her, but doesn't know what else to do.
Much of what we learn about the characters in Secrets and Lies is through simply shot conversations between two people. This relates back to Mike Leigh's improvisational style of acting. Take, for example, the scene of Hortense lying on the couch talking to her friend, and the scene of Maurice and Monica having a cup of tea, sitting either side of a coffee table in their house. In both, a lengthy medium long shot records most of their conversation. There is nothing flashy about the camera work, nothing to remind the audience that they are watching a film. They simply appear to be watching people having a heartfelt conversation, which in reality, in a way, they are.
The actors are sitting down having an unscripted conversation in a way that they think their characters would. We can feel Hortense's longing and questions about parents, Monica's loaded comments about "Saint Cynthia", and Maurice's sharp defense of his sister. This technique helps us to relate to the characters, and to attempt to understand them as real people, with many different dimensions to them. I think that the first turning point in the film comes when Hortense makes the decision to call Cynthia. The catalyst for this action has been her mother's death, and the film has been building up to it as she has searched for her birth records and Cynthia's address and phone number. Before this point we have seen the plot lines of Hortense and Cynthia' lives run parallel to each other but never meeting.
Through this decision the stakes are raised - Hortense or Cynthia could be very hurt, emotions are high, and the secret Cynthia has been hiding from Roxanne is about to become involved in her life. We also see that Hortense is very brave and determined - she knows all of the risks and goes ahead anyway. The scene where Hortense and Cynthia meet and go to a caf'e shows the effectiveness of Mike Leigh's way of filming a conversation. The caf'e is empty apart from them. A long high-angle shot from the left gives a deserted dreary view of the caf'e.
This cuts to a very lengthy static, head on, two shot of Cynthia and Hortense. The lighting is set up to try to look natural, and adds to the dreary feeling. The feeling of reality and a 'real conversation' is added to by the long silences as the two struggle to find the words to say to each other, and the unmoving camera. Nothing breaks the tension. This enhances the intensity of the slowly dawning moment where Cynthia recalls Hortense's father. Cynthia breaks down hysterically (again) and you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
This feeling is much like the tone of the music, and as well as the film in general. We feel the pain and un comfort both of them are feeling. Cynthia in tears, Hortense quiet, trying to control her emotions. After this point, where Cynthia and Hortense begin to go out and form an unexpected bond, the action changes, and the tables begin to turn between Cynthia and Roxanne. Cynthia is blossoming through her friendship with Hortense, more confident, less desperate and nagging.
The scene where Cynthia and Roxanne sit at home smoking is repeated, only this time it is Roxanne asking her mother all the questions, rather than the other way around. We see Cynthia's newfound confidence and attitude as she walks past Roxanne who is street sweeping and quips "you missed a spot darling." She also begins to take more pride in her looks, doing her hair nicely for a night out. The sub plots continue, at Maurice's studio. A beautiful woman with a scarred face is told by Maurice, "Someone always draws the short straw." This relates back to a similar comment he has made to Monica. We can feel the wistfulness in his voice - why does life have to be so unfair? The introduction of Stuart Christian provides some light relief, but at the same time a sense of sadness as Maurice thinks about how easily someone can slip into despair in life- "There but for the grace of God... ." .
The encounter with Stuart also shows us how hard working and prosperous Maurice has been. I feel Cynthia's decision to bring Hortense to the barbecue for Roxanne's birthday is the second turning point in the film. This changes the action again, now Hortense's life is being intertwined with the lives of all the others. It also raises the stakes again - now there is much greater potential for more people to get hurt. We can feel the tension as Hortense tries to avoid questions about where she works, and we cannot help but feel that everything is going to come out soon.
The lunch is shot from behind the one empty chair at the table so that we can see all of the characters arranged in a semi-circle around the camera. Interestingly, Paul and Jane, the minor characters are seated either side of the camera, so that they are partially cut off by the frame. This helps focus our attention on the main characters. The characters then move into the lounge, which becomes the climax scene of the film. We see a medium shot of Roxanne opening her card and money from Maurice, and Cynthia, distressed, over her shoulder.
This cuts to a close up of Monica, with a smug expression on her face. This gives us the feeling she knows she's done better than Cynthia for Roxanne. Cynthia says "Wish I'd brought my present with me now" with a hint of hysteria in her voice. The music starts up, deep, slow and ominous, building tension.
The music builds as the camera stays on Cynthia, struggling to hold back tears. We can feel her sadness and emotion. We can hear everyone else going about happily around her. Only Hortense feels the tension and we see a mid shot of her in the bathroom, trying to gain composure. This is typical of what we know about her character, she tries to keep calm at all times. While she is gone Cynthia reveals she is her daughter.
The camera flicks to a quick, close-up reaction shot of each of the others in silence, the tension build even more. Roxanne explodes and storms off. Maurice must once again be the mediator and we see his love and compassion as he convinces Roxanne to return. A medium-long shot of Maurice by the fireplace is significant. We hear Monica and Cynthia either side of him arguing like he's not there, as things come to a head between them. This shows the position he has been in for the whole film, stuck in the middle of them.
Maurice finally cracks. He is the only one who can blow apart all the secrets and lies that have been driving everyone in the family apart. The music starts up again, bittersweet, and Cynthia moves to comfort Monica. Hortense joins them to comfort Cynthia. We realize that all the lies had caused them to hate each other because they never knew the truth. They come to a resolution, and everyone feels a release.
Cynthia understands that the reason Monica has been so bitter towards her is because she is envious of her child. They perhaps now can give each other the support, care, affection and family that each of them secretly craves. Secrets and Lies is stark and uncluttered, revealing its characters through snapshots and details, and largely through simple conversations. The cinematography is created to give the impression we are peering into people's lives rather that watching a carefully crafted story. As the film picks up momentum, and the narrative structure brings together all the separate elements and people, we begin to learn much about the characters, their past, and why the act and make the choices they do.
We also learn the meaning they bring to each other's lives, and why they must come together.