The Spool / Columns
Criterion Corner: “Secrets & Lies”, “Defending Your Life”
Mike Leigh's kitchen-sink drama and Albert Brooks' droll afterlife comedy are two of Criterion's stellar March releases.
Read also: the best live TV streaming services with free trial>

Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

#1070: Secrets & Lies (1996), dir. Mike Leigh

Secrets & Lies - Criterion
Secrets & Lies – Criterion

One would be hard-pressed to find a more keenly-observed chronicler of everyday life than England’s own Mike Leigh. While some of his films dabble in the historic and histrionic (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner, Peterloo come to mind), it’s in his modern-day profiles of the workaday Briton — Life Is Sweet, Naked, Career Girls — where his quiet, observational eye holds the most purchase. 1996’s Secrets & Lies might well be the purest distillation of Leigh’s kitchen-sink dramas; he touches on social issues of class and race, but only slightly, with none of the preachiness Ken Loach is occasionally guilty of. And in so doing, speaks volumes about those very issues while keeping its focus on its individual characters and how they navigate those spaces.

Secrets & Lies is about two worlds colliding: one belongs to Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, masterful in her quiet calm), a successful middle-class optometrist who takes an interest in tracking down her biological mother after her adoptive one dies. The culprit, we learn, is Cynthia (a Cannes-winning performance from Brenda Blethyn), a brittle, middle-aged factory worker falling apart at the seams at her advancing years and her fractious relationships with her daughter and brother (a steady Timothy Spall). Hortense is Black; Cynthia is white — dynamics that cause first confusion, then strife in these family dynamics, as Cynthia eventually brings Hortense into the explosive relationships around her.

Little about Secrets & Lies belies a heart-stopping sense of excitement, and yet Leigh’s film infuses its languid pace with all the emotional tension of a thriller. Hortense’s feelings of outsiderdom, both within her adoptive family and her newfound biological one, Cynthia’s own crumbling sense of self-worth (you hardly find her without a cigarette in her hand or a weeping entreaty on her lips), all of it is laid bare in Leigh’s quiet, unassuming camera and the lengthy, compelling scenes borne of months of rehearsal and improvisation. Everyone on screen feels like they have their own complete lives, dreams deferred and long-simmering resentments going back years, which we’re just getting a peek in. Cynthia’s family is a tinder box just waiting to explode; Hortense’s arrival merely lights the match.

It’s a riveting film, made even more rewarding to watch by Criterion’s expert remastering and a robust Blu-ray release. The extras are comparatively modest for a Criterion release — just three interview featurettes (conversations with Leigh and composer Gary Yershon, a COVID-filmed Zoom chat between critic Corrina Antrobus and Jean-Baptiste, and an audio interview with Leigh), a trailer, and a deeply personal essay from Criterion curator extraordinaire Ashley Clark. But the new 2k digital restoration keeps the immediacy and texture of the film alive; Dick Pope’s cinematography feels alternately mannered and natural, the transfer ekeing out all of the lonely pastels and off-white walls of our character’s cloistered English domiciles. It’s a real cracker of a drama, and one not to miss.

You can purchase Secrets & Lies from the Criterion Collection website here.

#1071: Defending Your Life (1991), dir. Albert Brooks

Defending Your Life (Criterion)
Defending Your Life (Criterion)

And now, for something a little lighter — even as it deals with death. Albert Brooks, like Leigh, is no stranger to the Criterion Collection, but it’s a joy to see that Defending Your Life, one of his most audaciously funny works, finally get a place in the collection. Comic depictions of the afterlife are nothing newthrow a rock, and you’ll find a screenwriter scratching their head and musing, “what if limbo was a bureaucratic nightmare?!” — but Brooks’ take is particularly witty, insightful, and downright romantic.

Brooks, as is his wont, plays one of his typical everyman schlubs: the thoroughly, aggressively mediocre Daniel Miller, an ad exec who suffers an untimely death and ends up in Judgment City, a resort-like waystation for the recently departed to be evaluated. They’re assigned caseworkers (Brooks’ is the beautifully blinkered and big-brained Rip Torn) and are forced to replay moments from their life to prove whether they’ve lived with sufficient courage and self-assurance to earn a spot in the afterlife.

Sure, it hits a lot of the old afterlife-as-corporate-jargon touchstones we’ve come to expect, but Brooks delivers them with such deadpan freshness that it feels deeply original. The residents of Judgment City aren’t headed to a traditional pearly-gates heaven or hell, but are simply afforded the opportunity to proven they’ve lived enough to move on, or be sent back for another round on Earth to try again. It’s Buddhism, but with more paperwork.

This, of course, affords Brooks plenty of opportunities to poke and prod at not just the cravenness of American corporate culture in the ’80s and ’90s, but the ways in which even the most mundane interactions carry immense meaning, for good or ill. Is young Dan’s decision to rat on his friend taking his school supplies a moment of cowardice or honesty? Is his overall reticence to take big risks evidence of crippling fear or prudence? The latter question is tested even in Judgment City, as he meets, and falls in love with, Julia (Meryl Streep), an overachieving supermom who’s guaranteed to move on, which then makes Daniel even more nervous about his chances.

As a man now in my mid-thirties, endlessly crippled by indecision, it’s no surprise that this was a hell of a time to see Defending Your Life for the very first time. Brooks, like me, is a man deeply concerned with the enormity of our personal flaws, and whether or not our individual foibles are enough to erase any worthwhile things we’ve done. Are we doing enough in the world? Are we earning enough quote-unquote points to make our lives worth living? What Defending Your Life surmises is that, even if we spent our whole lives running away from our mistakes and playing it safe, it’s never too late — even in the afterlife — to finally be brave.

Criterion’s 4K restoration is a lovely one, bathing the frame in the washed-out whites of Judgment City and kaftan-life robes everyone wears, and lending a sense of magic to Ida Random’s gloriously heightened production design. The features are modest but mighty, including a chat between Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide, contemporary interviews with Brooks, Lee Grant and Torn, and a lovely featurette (the best on the disk) involving theologian/critic Donna Bowman’s glowing appraisal of Defending Your Life‘s vision of life after death. The essay comes courtesy of Midsommar filmmaker Ari Aster, and as wary as I am of letting non-critics/scholars write Criterion essays (let us write them, damnit! Put me in Coach!), Aster’s essay is a cracker, offering a personal connection to the film through its associations with his mother (who loved it) and connecting it to Brooks’ pitch-perfect comic sensibilities.

You can purchase Defending Your Life from the Criterion Collection website here.