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Secrets & Lies (1996)

R  |   |  Drama  |  25 October 1996 (USA)
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Ratings: 8.0/10 from 26,853 users   Metascore: 91/100
Reviews: 126 user | 66 critic | 27 from

A successful black woman discovers that her birth mother is a lower-class white woman, but the woman denies it. As emotions run high, everyone's secrets are exposed.



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Nominated for 5 Oscars. Another 33 wins & 34 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Michele Austin ...
Emma Amos ...
Girl with Scar
Brian Bovell ...
Hortense's Brother
Trevor Laird ...
Hortense's Brother
Clare Perkins ...
Hortense's Sister-in-Law
Elias Perkins McCook ...
Hortense's Nephew


Cynthia lives in London with her sullen street-sweeper daughter. Her brother has been successful with his photographer's business and now lives nearby in a more upmarket house. But Cynthia hasn't even been invited round there after a year. So, all round, she feels rather lonely and isolated. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Hortense, adopted at birth but now grown up, starts to try and trace her mother. Written by Jeremy Perkins {J-26}

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Roxanne drives her mother crazy. Maurice never speaks to his niece. Cynthia has a shock for her family. Monica can't talk to her husband. Hortense has never met her mother.



Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:






Release Date:

25 October 1996 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Secrets & Lies  »

Box Office


$4,500,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

$60,813 (USA) (27 September 1996)


$13,417,292 (USA) (16 May 1997)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Most of the script was improvised. Writer/director Mike Leigh told each of the actors what his/her part in the story was and they each developed their own characters. See more »


When Roxanne pushes Cynthia onto the bed, the shadow of a crew member's head is seen moving on the bed. See more »


Maurice: Life isn't fair then is it. Somebody always draws the short straw.
See more »


Referenced in 30 Rock: Secrets and Lies (2007) See more »


Happy Birthday to You
Words by Patty S. Hill & Mildred J. Hill (as Mildred Hill)
© Keith Prowse Music Pub Co. Ltd./EMI
Sung by the family at Hortense's birthday party
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

3-bucket tearjerker of hiding one's pain in plain sight
22 April 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

With modern films placing so much emphasis on visuals and sound & the stage specializing in avant-garde drama or comedy, it's rare to find old-fashioned storytelling outside of books. But it's rare at any time or in any medium to find a work combining such smartness & sensitivity as "Secrets & Lies." After the deaths of her adoptive parents, urbane young London optometrist Hortense (Jean-Baptiste) searches for her biological origins and locates her mother: alcoholic, neurotic, once-promiscuous factory worker Cynthia (Blethyn, in one of the finest film performances of all time). Each is stunned to find something about the other that neither knew: that the mother is white and the daughter is black! The film has sideplots rather than subplots, two other stories developed in depth, parallel to the main story, although Leigh masterfully uses them to support rather than weaken the central relationship between Cynthia & Hortense. Cynthia's daughter Roxanne (Rushbrook) is coming of age and exploring love, work and independence while struggling between the love, pity, resentment & disgust she holds for her mother. Cynthia's brother Maurice (Spall, a roly-poly, English Jimmy Stewart), a prosperous but overworked studio photographer, gives the family name a facade of middle-class respectability even as he & his wife Monica (Logan) carefully conceal an embarrassment of their own. Through a variety of small, seemingly random but fascinating illustrations like the Canterbury Tales, the film hammers home its theme: that lying & deception become not just easy but casual in an age that emphasizes individualism & responsibility, where you assume that no one, not even the closest of your relatives, wants to hear about your problems. Rather than help one another, each suffers alone, while every lie they so readily spin must constantly be fed with more deception. A story that could have been both preachy & crushingly depressing is cut with just the right amount of humor in all the right places, until the heartbreaking climax that is as powerful as any ever filmed. There isn't an air of judgment or lecturing morality, no attempt to make a sweeping commentary of society. If any such message is delivered it must be derived from the story. In a superb cast Blethyn stands out as the haunted, tormented Cynthia, hurt & angered by the contempt & pity she sees in the eyes of her brother, sister-in-law & daughter as she staves off nervous breakdown with the bottle. Yet she can't bring herself to turn away again from the child she gave up long ago, even though only she knows how much pain lies ahead if she doesn't. Jean-Baptiste provides a stark contrast as the cool-headed but intense young woman who might be repulsed by the coarse, painful world in which Cynthia lives, yet never shows any reluctance to enter it. There's a spareness about the film (so many scenes go without music that you're often surprised to remember that there IS a music score) that engrosses the viewer, making him concentrate, rather than giving an air of cheapness. It's not Shakespeare or Greek theater, since no one gets stabbed or finds out he's married his mother, but Tennessee Williams or Anton Chekhov would have been envious of this effort.

14 of 14 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

Message Boards

Recent Posts
Did Anyone Like Monica? AzaleaRose
Hortence's Father lps_darlo
Hortense is supposed to be mixed race??? markcody
Hortense's wardrobe cyweyman
How Could She Not Know Patty-76
Secrets and Lies is a poor film...worst film I've seen. willywonka-3
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