After her adoptive mother dies, Hortense, a successful black optometrist, seeks out her birth mother. She's shocked when her research leads her to a working class white woman, Cynthia. At first Cynthia denies the claim, but she eventually admits to birthing Hortense as a teenager, and the two begin to bond. However, when Cynthia invites Hortense to a family barbecue, Cynthia's already tense relationship with her family becomes even more complicated.
It would be interesting to critique the way Secrets & Lies seems to depend on Hortense being portrayed as a successful and prosperous member of the professional middle class. How would the dynamic of the film ring differently if the class disparity between Cynthia and Hortense was narrower—or even reversed. It would also be interesting to analyse this film in conversation with Basil Dearden's Sapphire (1959), not least of all because it could be argued that only the aesthetics of race relations have changed in the intervening decades. However, it would be rewarding to compare and contrast how Sapphire uses the genre of the police procedural to look at race, whilst Secrets & Lies uses a subgenre of drama that I can only categorise on the cuff as "soap opera" (albeit on a prestige level).
Secrets & Lies should easily be 3.5/5 based on the scene in the 'caff' alone—not a "diner" or "tearoom" as other US reviewers have mentioned. However, I mark it down on three important points. First, the original soundtrack rubbed me the wrong way — something about it seemed a little too obvious; too "abstract". Secondly, the film's many clichés and misrepresentations of British working-class life grated as the film unfolded: the dropped vowels; the obstreperous "yoofs"; the perpetual scowls; the constant chewing of gum; the chain-smoking; the aggressively lowbrow interests (eg. in TV and going to the pub) and no expressed aesthetic preferences whatsoever, even in the choice of alcohol. Finally, the final sequence was far too specific and explicit—Spall's speech is far too didactic, explaining the thesis of the film (ie. that long-term secrets aren't a good idea…) when we already knew or guessed what it was trying to say. Indeed, this indoor scene is by far the weakest in the film, including the very strangely handled implication Monica's middle-class fastiduous gentilisms are the result of her infertility. And of course the film is very eager to close down any race-related reason for the breakdown of the party.
Owing to its downplaying of the issue of race, the film doesn’t really explore how Hortense processes the monumental upending of her own identity, how she reacts to the newly complicated nature of her own Blackness in relation to her existing family and community.
— Ashley Clark (Criterion)
Hortense has been called a cipher by some critics, a monotonously pleasant woman who’s invested by Leigh with none of the boldly neurotic wrinkles that render many of the filmmaker’s characters, including everyone else in Secrets & Lies, so indelible. There’s also the matter of Hortense being black, and so it’s tempting to read her as a prop, a “magical” person of color sent down from the heavens of contrivance to work miracles for a white family. […] [The film's] textures would be less freighted with cultural baggage if Hortense were white; by casting a black actor, and by then mostly ignoring the issue of the character’s race in a familial ecosystem that’s otherwise all white, Leigh practically dares you to call him a reductive fantasist.
— Chuck Bowen (Slant Magazine)