Cynthia lives in this house, as she has for decades, with her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). They have a fractious relationship, with Roxanne showering her mother with poisonous epithets whenever the conversation passes beyond the mundane. Cynthia seems beaten down by a harsh life of factory work punctuated with teenage pregnancy, caring for her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) and love-hate life with Roxanne. Maurice, a successful portrait photographer, has managed to escape the grind of the backstreets through hard work and determination. His wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), is consumed by the desire to create a perfect home, forever cleaning and stencilling. Whatever affection she has for Maurice lies buried beneath a thick blanket of compulsion, only able to emerge in twisted form. He stoically bears such abuse though, even when it means estrangement from Cynthia and Roxanne.
Eventually Maurice makes the effort to visit Cynthia, hiding his motives beneath the external screen of dropping by casually. Cynthia is almost painfully happy to see her little brother, gently chiding him on his tardiness in calling her (it's at least half her fault though, since she refuses to phone him). As it's Roxanne's 21st birthday soon, Maurice gets around to the real reason for his appearance by suggesting that he and Monica host a party for their niece. At much the same time Hortense manages to contact Cynthia, unintentionally crushing her real mother with just a few words. Cynthia is initially repelled at coming face-to-face with her past, scared that she could lose what fragile family she already has. Curiosity wins out though and soon they meet as strangers, parting as friends. With this simple event a fuse has been lit, one which will annihilate and regenerate the family.
Mike Leigh has always been unusually perceptive to the dynamics of ordinary relationships, coaxing complex and unsentimental performances from his cast. With Secrets & Lies this winning trend continues, although at an even more finely honed and physically moving level. The script spans from the depths of human frailty to the heights of understanding with ease, never over-stretched but often staggeringly painful. Leigh's chosen actors are fully able to deal with the themes he raises, playing their characters with convincing subtlety. Thus it really doesn't seem fair to highlight any particular actors, they all fit into their parts so well. In any case, the star of the show is Leigh's handling of situations (often one-on-one dialogues) with disarming candour. The only artificial scene takes place when Cynthia and Hortense first meet, in a totally deserted and silent tea-room (which seems unlikely). However this is exactly the correct approach, since to Cynthia and Hortense the cafe really seems empty, so wrapped are they in their catharsis.
A stunning and draining drama, Secrets & Lies is almost certain to strike some resonance within each viewer's life. Everyone has secrets, regrets and perceived slights but to let these poison a lifetime - now that's a tragedy.