Everybody hurts

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

To be honest, I have never been able to tell if Leigh is fascinated by his characters because of their drab, inconsequential lives, or despite them. Is he the protective father figure, gently nursing them along toward cleansing and fulfillment--doing his part to assure that the meek really shall inherit the earth--or their exploiter, transfixed not by their prosaic nobility, but by patent tawdriness of the lives, a critic dumfounded by their arrogance in the face of self-imposed adversity? Does he wish them better in their lives, or envy them their realness?

It isn't easy to tell. No character is clothed as a traditional hero. Maurice is just about the only male in sight, and he's hardly a traditional leading man. It isn't just his pudgy, jolly demeanor or his implied weakness that subverts his heroic authority. Leigh hasn't emasculated Maurice; he has merely let him exist totally inside his tedious sensibilities. Maurice represents what we all have access to--a man we can relate to not for his mythic proportions, but for his common touch; he's a real working-class hero. Another of Leigh's specialties is the resentful young woman with undirected venom, so when Roxanne first shows up with her lips pursed until a groove forms, you might expect he's resorting to an old bag of tricks; that would be an unfair characterization of the emotional depths Leigh plumbs in such variety. (He also uses a Schubert-inspired score from film to film--a single violin and cello--but it never ceases to generate an unsettling tension.)

In the end, it hardly matters what he thinks of his characters; what is important is that he sees them as individuals and forces his audience to see them as individuals, as well. I suspect it is the intensity of emotions of people under stress that causes Leigh to concentrate his camera on all manner of lowlifes. (He is interested in both the rich and poor dregs of society; to the extent he believe poverty to breed thrashing anger, he equate wealth with crassness.) Leigh's preoccupation with the textures of everyday emotions is Bergmanesque in its complexity and curiosity; he works out his characters' neuroses as if putting together some infinite jigsaw puzzle. He has a marvelous way of writing--not with a pen or a camera, but with people. The performances make a Leigh film--lines and actions delivered as only those characters could. (Blethyn in particular delivers a wrenching performance. Cynthia is a spring of wounded emotions wearing her chatty coquettishness as carelessly as her tacky Capri pants; she alternately is raw and real--a slap in the face followed by a cool, soft kiss.)

Leigh makes a singular mixture of film components, highly personal and stylized on the one hand, yet utterly submissive on the other. He pulls off some fabulous miracles in the group effort that is filmmaking--operating less as an auteur than orchestra leader; and with the freedom to feel out the inner lives of their characters, he achieves something magical, not in its tone, but in the connectivity between his characters and ultimately the audience. At some point in Secrets & Lies, the room stops being a theater and becomes a confessional; when it is over, Leigh has granted all of us absolution.

If unrest between the classes strikes the central discordant note in a socialist film climate like England, American cinema has developed its own idiom for working-class struggles: the search for identity not in being one of the underclass, but in being one of the mere masses. The search for meaning to life in the Hudson River Valley town where Heavy takes place is less about money and position than it is about connecting with others on some meaningful level. With a narrative of textbook simplicity and a muted visual acumen, writer-director James Mangold has made the most astutely observed, heartfelt movie of the year.

Like the best in modern American realism, Heavy culls its resonance from the attention to detail in the iconography we associate with certain types of characters. I don't know whether horny young guys still buy cheesecake posters like the Farrah Fawcett bathing suit-teeth-and-hairathon that sold a gazillion copies in 1976, but there's one hanging on Victor's (Pruitt Taylor Vince) bedroom wall, and it probably hasn't moved in 20 years. (An aside: I think Farrah's erect right nipple is what really sold the thing.) If the poster were nothing more than a collector's item, then its presence wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But Victor is a fully functional, if painfully bashful, adult, and his stagnancy is arresting.

At first Victor comes across as a sad, miserable man because he has too long been under the thumb of his brassy mother, Dolly (Shelley Winters). As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Victor's tragedy is one of his own doing--his refusal to take chances--and somehow it seems even more pitiable. Victor gets the opportunity to run his own life, but he's lost; when he goes to the nearby culinary institute to cultivate his cooking skills, he thinks himself to be a fish out of water. Victor is a cook, not a chef; he makes food to be eaten rather than admired, and you feel his disappointment in realizing that his dream was just that--a fantasy with no basis in fact.

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