a tangled web: a review of “secrets and lies”

This review was written for a masteral class at the College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines.

A Tangled Web: A Review of “Secrets and Lies”

A movie by writer/director Mike Leigh under October Films, released 1996.

Producer :  Simon Channing-Williams; Rating:  R (for language)

Cast:  Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne)


“What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…”

The oft-quoted – and often misattributed – lines from Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott’s 1808 poem “Marmion” aptly describe the sticky strands that entrap the characters in this 1996 British film.

The title is unpretentious and straightforward. Without fanfare, it immediately gives away the theme of the film, which centers on the deceptions perpetrated by the characters.

Cynthia hid the indiscretions of her youth from her daughter, while her brother Maurice and his wife Monica had their own secrets. The film explores the consequences of having these lies buried for a long time, festering in their psyches, and the result when the truth is exposed many years later.

The Story Unfolds

The film opens with a graveyard scene. It is in the daytime, perhaps in the morning.  A light drizzle of rain soaks the mourners, whose voices are raised, a cappella, in the hymn “How Great Thou Art”. The camera pans to focus on a young woman of African heritage. It is successful young optometrist Hortense Cumberbatch, sorrowing over the death of her adoptive mother. Her adoptive father had died some years ago.

Now an orphan, Hortense decides to search for her biological mother. She obtains the information surrounding her birth from the adoption agency. Her shock is profound when she learns that her mother’s race is white. Hortense is certain that a mistake has been made in the records; yet she is assured by the adoption agency representative that the information is accurate.

Hortense looks up the telephone number and address of her mother, Cynthia. After several attempts, aborted because of her nervousness and anxiety, Hortense finally contacts Cynthia. The latter is shocked to hear from Hortense. “But no one knows about you, sweetheart,” she says, exposing the fact that she had concealed the out-of-wedlock birth of her baby. “I was only sixteen, you know,” she justifies.

Hortense calls Cynthia for the first time. (screenshot)

Cynthia says, “Don’t call me again,” and puts the phone down. Hortense’s need to know about her origins is overwhelming; she calls back. Cynthia is in a dither, but her curiosity has been awakened. She agrees to meet with Hortense.


Cynthia can’t believe what she’s hearing.

They meet at a train station. Cynthia nervously fiddles with a cigarette, while Hortense paces back and forth, peering into the faces of the white women standing there. When she approaches Cynthia and identifies herself, the latter is aghast. “There must be some mistake, sweetheart,” she insists. But Hortense assures her there is none.

They enter a nearby tea shop to relax their nerves with that favorite British standby, tea, and it is this pivotal scene that is one of the most emotional in the entire film. (Brenda Blethyn, who plays Cynthia, won a Best Actress Palme d’Or at Cannes for her brilliant portrayal of this role, and was nominated for an Academy Award as well.  Much of the dialogue was improvised by the actors themselves, a method of which director Mike Leigh uses to good effect here.)

Cynthia smokes furiously as Hortense patiently waits for her to open up about the circumstances of her birth. “I’ve never been with a black man, sweetheart,” she asserts. Hortense just looks at her; then, realization strikes Cynthia. Her face crumples, and she weeps, turning her face to the wall. “Who was my father?” asks Hortense. Cynthia turns to her, her face wet with tears. “I can’t tell you that, sweetheart. You don’t want to know.” Again, she seeks to conceal the truth. Some things are too painful – or shameful – for her to reveal.


The teashop scene. Cynthia has a revelation.

Apart from the dissimilarity of race, there is also the difference in class, a significant aspect of British society that deeply influences attitudes. Hortense is a well-educated and well-spoken professional from the middle-class. She lives in a comfortable modern flat, furnished in minimalist black-and-whites. Cynthia, on the other hand, is a working-class woman employed in a cardboard box factory. She speaks Cockney slang, chain-smokes, and resides in a “council house”, government-owned rent-controlled housing, with her daughter Roxanne, who works as a street sweeper.

Apart from Roxanne, Cynthia’s other relative is her brother Maurice, a professional photographer married to Monica. They have no children. Monica spends her time obsessively decorating their beautiful home. She dislikes Cynthia, and discourages Maurice from visiting her. Yet with the impending 21st birthday of Roxanne, for whom Maurice has a soft spot, Maurice recalls how Cynthia helped raised him when their parents died.

He visits Cynthia – the first time in a long while – and they have an emotional reunion. He invites her and Roxanne to his home for a barbecue party to celebrate Roxanne’s birthday.

Meanwhile, Hortense and Cynthia develop their relationship by meeting each other frequently. As they grow closer to each other, Cynthia decides to invite Hortense to the barbecue. At first, the latter demurs; but she is curious, and Cynthia is persistent.


Cynthia and Hortense develop their relationship with frequent dates.

Cynthia invites Hortense to the family gathering to gauge her family’s reaction to the young woman. Yet she still cannot bring herself to tell her family the truth about Hortense, so she asks Hortense to pretend that they are co-workers at the box factory.

The reason for Cynthia’s continued concealment of Hortense’s true identity is because while Maurice, Cynthia’s brother, and Monica, his wife, are aware of the faux pas Cynthia committed when she was young, Roxanne does not. Cynthia was too ashamed to tell her. Having gotten away with the subterfuge for years, she believes she can pull another lie off.

The barbecue party takes place at Maurice and Monica’s spotlessly-clean home. Cynthia, Roxanne, her boyfriend Paul, and Maurice’s assistant Jane admire the house while the homeowners bustle around preparing for the party. They have been advised by Cynthia that a friend of hers from work will attend. Monica fears it is inappropriate; Maurice is more welcoming and is just happy that his lonely sister has made a close friend.

When Hortense finally shows up, it is Monica who opens the door.  A look of surprise crosses her face, perhaps the only race-related reaction in the movie. Hortense enters and Monica introduces her as a “mate” from work.  But as the day unfolds, Hortense reveals that she is an eye doctor, a bit of information that puzzles all the others. What is a doctor doing in a box factory? Again Cynthia lies and says that Hortense is employed there to check on the optical health of the workers.

All six characters then proceed to have a convivial meal around a small round table in the back yard, a scene filmed in one unbroken take in improvisation style.


At the barbecue party: Jane, Hortense, Cynthia, Maurice, Monica, Roxanne, Paul.

Lies are exposed in the film’s denouement. Back in the living room for dessert, when Hortense goes to the bathroom, Cynthia, burdened by guilt, blurts out the truth.

Hortense emerges from the bathroom into a tense atmosphere. Roxanne is shocked and angry. Monica comments that Cynthia should have told Roxanne the truth long before. Roxanne storms out of the house, followed by Paul.  Maurice runs after them and persuades them to come back.

Cynthia begs Roxanne’s forgiveness for the lie. Tears roll down their faces. This triggers a reaction from Maurice. He then goes on to reveal secrets of his own, harbored for years – that Monica is barren, and that their childlessness is negatively affecting their relationship.


Maurice to Cynthia: “Just tell her the truth.” Roxanne is in shock; Paul stands by supportively.

Monica is shamed. She cries. Cynthia envelops her in a hug. The hugely emotional catharsis that follows is a release for everyone. With all their secrets and lies exposed, they can all start anew, and strengthen their relationships based on truth and mutual trust and affection.


Cynthia comforts Monica.

Spinning a Web: The Theory

Central to examining the content of this film is the Interpersonal Deception theory (IDT) as developed by David Buller and Judee Burgoon. They define the concept of deception thus:

Deception involves the deliberate manipulation of information, behavior, and image in order to lead another person to a false belief or conclusion…when a speaker deceives, that person engages in strategic behavior that distorts the truthfulness of the information or is incomplete, irrelevant, unclear, or indirect. Speakers may even dissociate themselves from the deceptive information. Listeners often detect the use of these strategies and can become suspicious that they are being deceived. (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008)

People lie “to avoid hurting or offending another person, to emphasize their best qualities, to avoid getting into conflict, or to speed up or slow down a relationship.” Buller and Burgoon’s study on verbal deceit also lays out the three strategies of lying – falsification, concealment, and equivocation:

Falsification creates a fiction, concealment hides a secret, and equivocation dodges the issue…all three issues fall uder the umbrella concept of deception, which Buller and Burgoon define as a “message knowingly transmitted by a sender to foster a false belief of conclusion by the receiver.” (Griffin, 2006).

How come we can’t always tell if we are being lied to? IDT, according to Emory Griffin, “rejects the simplistic notion that it’s easy to spot when others are lying.” A significant element of IDT is the “truth bias” which argues that:

…when we are relationally close, we have a degree of familiarity between us. In a close relationship, we have certain biases or expectations about what we are going to see. A truth bias makes us less inclined to see deception. (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008)

The theory also postulates a phenomenon called non-verbal leakage. Since the deceiver is exerting effort to concoct a plausible story and allay the possible suspicion of the receiver, subtle physical signs on the deceiver’s part – increased blinking, shifty eyes, frequent speech errors, etc.  – may cause suspicion on the part of the receiver. (Griffin, 2006)

Unraveling the Tangled Strands

It was falsification when Cynthia told her family at the barbecue party that Hortense was her workmate.

It was concealment when Cynthia hid the fact of having had a first child from her daughter Roxanne, and when she refuses to reveal the identity of Hortense’s father until the end of the film; when Monica and Maurice kept to themselves the knowledge that Monica was barren; and when Maurice did not speak of his disappointment at not having children and its devastating effect on his relationship with Monica. Concealment was also practiced by Hortense at the party, when she kept up the pretense that she was Cynthia’s officemate.

It was equivocation when the couple skirted the issue of their childlessness for years.

IDT also states that suspicion can set in on the part of the receiver, and the deceiver then “adjusts their presentation to allay suspicion” (Griffin, 2006). This is what Hortense and Cynthia do when the group wonders aloud why someone like Hortense is working in a box factory. The clearly apparent outward characteristics of obvious education and higher social status raises red flags among her listeners. Hortense “adjusts” by telling the group that she is an optometrist employed there, and Cynthia further elaborates by saying that Hortense is tasked to examine the eyes of the workers.

This explanation satisfies the rest of the group, who, again, have no real basis to disbelieve Cynthia and Hortense. According to “truth bias”, since we do not expect our close relations to lie to us, it is exceptionally devastating when they do. No leakage seems to have occurred to arouse the suspicions of the others, thus the intense negative reactions of Cynthia’s family are therefore to be expected when the lies are discovered.

The absence of leakage also explains the shock with which the revelations of Maurice and Monica are greeted.

Griffin contends that the “power of IDT is found in its practical advice. When talking with others, we should doubt our ability to detect deception… IDT underscores the complexity of deception when people talk and respond to each other face-to-face. It’s hard to know for sure when someone isn’t telling the truth.” This concept was efficiently portrayed in this film. Because the characters could not tell that they were being lied to, secrets and lies were kept for years, festering guilt and pain until the moment of confession and subsequent release.

In our own lives, IDT goes a long way in explaining deception when it is a part of interpersonal communication. How often have we been crushed by the weight of untruths we have told, or the revelation of fabrications spun by our trusted loved ones?  Secrets and Lies is a story that may have happened to any of us in one shape or another. The lessons are here to be learned and profited from; shall we take heed?


Griffin, E. (2006). A First Look at Communication Theory (6th ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill.

Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. A. (2008). Theories of Human Communication (9th ed.). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

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