THE CRICTICS FILM: Today suburbia, tomorrow the world

That Golden Palm which now casts its dappled shade over Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies (15) might come as something of an agreeable surprise, for all that it is well deserved; his wanly comic drama about families has many of the qualities of a national family joke, so replete with this country's shared disappointments, half-forgotten grudges and rueful acceptances that you might not think it fully intelligible in Cannes, or anywhere outside these shores. Do audiences in Nancy yelp with laughter, as we do, when Paul (Lee Ross) grunts "Can be, mate" to someone who asks if his work is hard? Will cinema-goers in Helsinki squirm, as we do, when Monica (Phyllis Logan) says of her WC "I think the peach tones make it quite tranquil"? Are Bostonians likely to wince in recognition, as we do, at the shrill maternal whine with which Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) catechises her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) about contraceptive devices?

Maybe not; but if international viewers might fumble for some of the precise social nuances, they can hardly fail to catch the denseness and emotional force of just about every performance here, no matter how fleeting. Though it was Brenda Blethyn who took the Best Actress award at Cannes, the whole cast works at such a pitch that to single out any particular role seems mean-spirited. (But here's a mean thought, anyway: Timothy Spall is outstanding.) The faint whiff of caricature that hangs around each part in the beginning seems to act like an artistic inoculation, in the service of greater reality. By the end of the film, they're beyond excellent: they've become people you know with uncomfortable, even irritating intimacy.

More melancholic than some of Leigh's earlier family comedies, Secrets & Lies begins with a funeral - the burial of the woman who was the adoptive mother of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a self-possessed young black woman who works as an optometrist. Prompted to wonder about her biological mother, Hortense eventually tracks down Cynthia, who is not only one of life's more conspicuous casualties - a bone-weary factory worker and unmarried mother of another daughter, subsisting in a terraced house which is sliding inexorably into slumhood - but, to her shock, white. After Cynthia's initial surprise and dismay, however, the two begin to get on famously, to the point where Cynthia gathers the nerve to introduce her to the rest of her half-family at a barbecue her affluent younger brother Maurice (Spall) and his wife, Monica, are holding for Roxanne's 21st birthday. Sparks fly, though not quite in the directions you would expect.

What distinguishes Secrets & Lies from a good deal of Mike Leigh's earlier work is its generosity and concern with redemption. You're no longer tempted to feel, as, say, in Abigail's Party, that you can judge someone's soul by the shade and texture of their upholstery, and anyone who sniggers at Monica when she stencils her walls with a Laura Ashley kit will have ashes in their mouth by the final reel.

Among the film's many accomplishments is its extraordinary lightness of touch on the nervous issue of race. Beyond a couple of inescapable but-you-can't-be-my-daughter! gags, the topic is hardly mentioned at all, though Monica's brittle solicitousness to Hortense and Hortense's awkward fielding of her twitterings capture truths that less delicate treatments would miss.

More striking still is Leigh's ability to create beings whose uncompromising decency, for all their burdens of grief, is entirely convincing. While everyone is ultimately redeemed, two in particular - Maurice and Hortense - border on the saintly, and while one would not want to accuse Leigh too directly of dabbling in symbolism, it does seem more than coincidental that, as an optometrist and a photographer, they are both concerned with looking and seeing clearly. (The montages of Maurice at work are the film's comic high-spot.)

What Secrets & Lies does, and which so few entertainments manage, is to attend, patiently and scrupulously, to the lives of its characters. In terms of style, this means plenty of close-ups, static camera positions and audaciously long takes. In terms of spirit, it means an attitude to quotidian life which borders on the kind of humility you can find in Ozu or Olmi - two of the directors Leigh has said he most admires - but not so often in the work of other British directors. Hence, perhaps, the paradox rewarded at Cannes: the closest artistic kindred of this intensely British film come from other nations. Could that be why all the characters have French-sounding names?

Compared to Leigh's creations - indeed, compared to the Muppets (see below) - most of the characters in Gregory Hoblit's meaninglessly titled Primal Fear (18) are ciphers, points on a script diagram rather than breathing entities. This doesn't matter unduly, since the film is so much a plot- driven courtroom drama that it can afford to jettison psychological ballast, though a little more plausibility might have been a polite gesture, Richard Gere, greying nicely, plays Martin Vail - the name, you will note, is a single consonant removed from "vain" - a grandstanding defence attorney who decides to take on the case of Aaron Stampler (played by a newcomer, Edward Norton, who is not half bad), a stammering redneck charged with the gory murder of an archbishop. It's doubtful many Brits will take long to work out at least one of the twists that's in store, but perhaps our godless nation just tells more smutty jokes about clergymen than they do in the States. Granted such handicaps, the result are diverting enough: the trial scenes are swiftly paced, and Gere proves yet again that you don't have to be believable to be watchable.

Regis Wargnier's last film of note was the nostalgic colonialist epic Indochine; his latest, the dismal Une Femme Francaise (18), treads similar ground. As the years pass into decades, the unageing Emmanuelle Beart - her remarkable lips given even more prominence than usual by vivid maquillage - wears a demure powder-blue frock with white gloves, a blazing white silk wedding dress, a dark blue satin party gown, a severe black suit, a lightweight oatmeal linen number (ideal for the tropics) with matching hat, a low-cut scarlet cocktail dress slashed to the thigh, and many, many other striking outfits. It's not much of a movie, but it would make a charming spread in Vogue. The plot? Jeanne (Mlle Beart) marries Louis (Daniel Auteuil) on the brink of the Second World War; he promptly gets taken prisoner, she has affairs, and husband and wife spend the next 20 years respectively going off to war and being an old slapper. Possibly it's an allegory about the European lipstick mountain, or something.

If the secret of good comedy is timing, everything you need to know about the mirthfulness of Spy Hard (PG) is that it's a snappy come-back made more than three decades too late. The Naked Gun formula is applied with slavish cack-handedness to the James Bond series and nothing, not even Leslie Nielsen (whose sublime deadpan has made Lt Frank Drebin an icon for our times) can wring a smirk from its pitifully unfunny script.

Far superior on every level is Muppet Treasure Island (U) in which this ever-versatile troupe - augmented by Tim Curry as Long John Silver, Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins and Billy Connolly as Billy Bones - take on Robert Louis Stevenson, and win. While Miss Piggy's many admirers will be disappointed that her grand entrance comes rather late, there are abundant compensations: a spirited performance from Fozzie as the rich half-wit Squire Trelawney, typically mordant commentary from Statler and Waldorf, and one notable casting coup: Silver's faithful pet Polly is played not by a parrot but by (shades of Gerard de Nerval) a lobster. Best musical number: "Cabin Fever". Brian Henson directs this splendid stuff.

The other offering for half-term is a well-intentioned oddity entitled Angus (12) - which, as its eponymous hero (Charlie Talbert) observes, is "a cow's name". Angus is a fat kid, a science whiz, and a frustrated romantic who yearns for the underripe charms of a cheerleader - the girlfriend of a tall blond football star who makes Angus's life a misery by running his outsized underpants up the flagpole and similar unkind stunts. In common with its protagonist, Patrick Read Johnson's film is both likeable and a touch too keen to be liked - it throws up gags and pathos indiscriminately, desperate to hold your attention. Though the pill under the saccharine coating is a noble one (one should rebel against the dictatorship of the smugly normal), it's also slightly wearying. The film's secondary moral is that, no matter how pudgy, gauche and sweaty you are, you can still date the cheerleader if only you have the courage to be yourself. Don't heed it, boys; it's a cruel lie.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14

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