Everybody hurts

The morose, human dramas of the '70s make a startling comeback in Secrets & Lies and Heavy

Throughout the '60s in England and the '70s in America, the development of film as a form of popular entertainment began to explore areas of realism previously thought to lack a minimum level of escapism. Until then, conventional wisdom held that viewers might willingly pay to be moved by tender love stories or scared by thrillers or delighted by musicals, but a fantasy element was needed to keep the action at a distance: It was detached, palatable, and ultimately fake. The angry young directors of British cinema--Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Joseph Losey, and others--would have none of that. They conjugated a new cinematic grammar, one where murky sets, unglamorous situations, and vitriolic anti-heroes replace traditional, bland champions of the bourgeoisie. As the counterculture movement evolved and expanded--from "mod" London to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury--so did the tone of movies. Eventually there was a glut on depressing, frank, moving film portrayals of people as they really lived. "Kitchen sink" dramas took hold of the culture and by and large refused to compromise their sad, regretful portrait of a world on the decline: Look Back in Anger, Blow-Up, Midnight Cowboy, Scarecrow, Lenny, and Eraserhead, to name a paltry few. The driving idea behind this genre was to remove any distractions that pull the audience away from the film's emotional content; movies not actually filmed in black-and-white often feel as if they were.

As civilization continued to change, so did taste in film style. Arguably, the last two movies "of" the '70s--whose releases coincided with Ronald Reagan feeding a feel-good country to power-hungry excess--were American Gigolo and Thief. Paul Schrader, one of the genre's principal exponents, directed American Gigolo, yet despite its bitter flavor, the setting was uncompromisingly glitzy. Thief did much the same: With its electronic score by Tangerine Dream and slick, wet-street visuals, writer-director Michael Mann gussied up what only three years before would have been a darker, more ominous film. (Mann went on to contribute to the rise of the dominant film technique of the '80s--oily and shallow--by creating Miami Vice.) These films' success rang the death knell of American ultrarealism, and by the '80s, the brickyard style of melodrama had more or less run its course. "Out" were faddy lower-class wannabes singing "Convoy"; "in" were power ties and Giorgio Moroder.

Now in the '90s, as other '70s icons are rearing their ugly heads--everything from the Bradys to bell-bottoms--so is an interest in realism. I hadn't realized how much we had, as a society, come to ache for the kind of vivid depiction of life where communication on a human level is so fresh, but two films--the British Secrets & Lies and the wholly American Heavy--signal a startling comeback to the morose, dour, deeply felt lives of ordinary people. They are the most welcome movie events of the season.

In America we may have given up looking for significance in mere human interaction, but Mike Leigh, the English director of Secrets & Lies, never did. Leigh has been making movies since the early '70s, but he first began to attract attention with his working-class dramas in the past 10 years, first with High Hopes, then Life is Sweet and Naked. Secrets & Lies is the most fully integrated entry into his canon, marching toward a more cohesive theory of the human condition than Leigh has attempted before. Although the tone is far less acidic than in Naked, he still derives sustenance from opening his characters' wounds and seeing how rancid and pusy they will get before someone has the sense to salve them. Watching a Leigh movie is a process:You can't casually observe, miss a few scenes, and come back later; you cannot heal a wound without following the prescribed treatment.

Secrets & Lies is all about wounds and our tendency to embrace placebos rather than the harder courses of treatment. That's true of Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a 40ish housewife and factory worker, and her roly-poly brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), a photographer whose life is empty inside but fulfilling on the surface; they have their own secrets to keep hidden from each other, but many more that they keep hidden from themselves, which Leigh comments on with beautiful understatement. As we watch Maurice at work in his studio, coaxing and cajoling his subjects to smile, or as we witness the bickering and fussy henpecking that goes on a second before the shutter clicks, it becomes apparent--by an insight into the levels that we have to look at all the characters' lives--that Leigh isn't just adding gratuitous scenes. As used by Leigh, photographs preserve a moment in time, but they do not show the truth. Snapshots are just that: slices of real life, not life itself. They are fakes, artificially induced for the sole purpose of propagating a lie. When Cynthia rhapsodizes about her salad days, her perfect legs, and her sexual conquests, she is trying to convince herself of these truths as much as her daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook); Leigh wants Cynthia and the viewer to stop being fooled by the superficial calm, and to look to the emotional agony brewing underneath.

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