Friday, February 20, 2009

Brenda Blethyn

Today marks the 63rd birthday of actress Brenda Blethyn. Our featured film is her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1996 movie Secrets and Lies.

The scene starts not with Blethyn, but with actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a young black middle class professional in contemporary London. She was an adopted child, and now that her parents have died, she's interested in finding out about her biological mother. What she finds is very surprising: her biological mother is a white woman, Cynthia Purley (Blethyn). Needless to say, this is quite the surprise for Hortense, but she still makes plans to meet her biological mother.

It is not all happily ever after, of course, or else we wouldn't have a movie. Purley's is the mother of all dysfunctional families. She's a working-class woman with a rebellious daughter, and there's not really any father figure around. The closest there is to that is her brother Maurice, a photographer who owns his own studio and has risen above his working-class place in life thanks in part to his wife, who doesn't really care for his sister and niece. Cynthia is desperate for any love she can find, and learning that her newfound daughter has done reasonably well for herself, would like to have her in her family's lives. The presence of another daughter causes quite a shock for all of them, but not so much because Cynthia had a one-night stand with a black man, resulting in a black daughter. Instead, it's the fact that Cynthia has decided to spring this upon everybody (including poor unsuspecting Hortense) as a surprise at her younger daughter's birthday party.

Secrets and Lies is an outstanding film, largely because it feels so honest. All of the characters have very real, and understandable, human flaws. The story is also presented realistically, without lapsing into either melodrama or cloyingness. Although the movie ends on a hopeful note, it's open-ended, and not one that has everybody suddenly living happily ever after. The characters might keep close bonds, or (especially in the case of Maurice's wife) may not. The performances are quite good, too. Marianne-Jean Baptiste was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar, although to be honest, her part as an outsider is relatively straightforward. Timothy Spall, who plays Maurice, is good as the brother with a foot in both worlds, both the working-class world that he and his sister grew up in, and the more aspirational class that his wife wants him to be in. It's very easy to imagine him being torn between the two. Honors, however, go to Blethyn, who deservedly takes center stage as the sad woman with an enormous secret. She engenders both empathy and discomfiture in appropriate measure, and richly deserved her Oscar nomination.

Secrets and Lies has been released to DVD, although in an expensive edition, so it's another movie you might want to rent instead.

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