Reel Life. (Psychotherapy)

By Stone, Alan A. | Clinical Psychiatry News, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Reel Life. (Psychotherapy)


Stone, Alan A., Clinical Psychiatry News


After laboring in relative obscurity for nearly 3 decades, English writer-director Mike Leigh became an international success in 1999 with his first commercial hit, "Topsy-Turvy," a film about composers Gilbert and Sullivan. Three years earlier, he received his first critical recognition for his much-acclaimed "Secrets & Lies," a psychodrama that marked the director's transition from brutal character-sketcher to synthesizing dramatist.

Leigh's previous films had drawn a limited audience and little critical favor. The problem was part subject matter and part style. Leigh is obsessed with the British class system, particularly the English proletariat--people who struggle to survive one rung up from the dole. He studies them with a determined, nearly clinical attention.

His style in these early films--a brutal realism that can be stunning but is rarely beautiful--gives them the aesthetic quality of a Lucian Freud painting. It is the antithesis of the audience-pleasing Merchant Ivory genre, which celebrates the England of the past. Leigh's England is a defeated nation of "real" people, most of them poor.

With "Secrets & Lies," Leigh changed, as critics recognized. His characters have hope and, as one critic wrote, a "new philosophy of positive emotion." For this philosophy, and for other aspects of his directorial technique, Leigh is indebted to J.L. Moreno, the self-proclaimed founder of psychodrama--who theorized that people and families can be healed if they will just give up their secrets and lies. The idea enabled Leigh to go beyond his striking vignettes of character to create final scenes of hopeful resolution.

In "Secrets & Lies," Leigh also exceeds his usual examination of class in contemporary England by touching on race and interracialism--shared preoccupations of Western consciousness. The director brilliantly plays the class card against the race card.

Central to the story is Hortense, a young, professional, black woman in London, adopted at birth by black parents. When her adoptive mother dies, she searches for her biologic mother and discovers that she is one of Leigh's bottom-of-the-barrel whites. Hortense never finds out about her biologic father or learns how she was conceived. Interestingly; the film keeps that secret while revealing all others.

This, then, is another film about roots, identity, and family. It unfolds like a happening, although it has a sense of plot and structure, which is built around Hortense's search and discovery. She is the catalyst who brings to light all the secrets and lies.

Hortense's birth mother, Cynthia Rose, is portrayed by Brenda Blethyn in an amazing performance. The nakedness of her character generates anxious laughter and tears of sympathy.

When acting is that real, the pleasant anonymity of being a member of the audience is replaced by the painfully embarrassing feeling of being a hapless witness to someone's shame. That is the "real" at which Leigh always aims; it is not everyone's cup of tea.

To achieve this level of realism with a. special intensity, Leigh co-opts the methods of a psychological guru, coaching his actors to improvise their characters.

Modern explorers of the mind/brain who map the emotional circuits confirm that actors fall into in two basic cater gories: the "Oliviers," who learn lines and simulate appropriate emotions, and "Method" actors, who find an emotional experience within and recreate it in the performance.

Leigh's actors get neither script nor role; he gives them a premise and asks them to invent the characters and speak lines taken from their own emotional life.

Although he may not welcome the comparison, the filmmaker is a direct descendent of psychodramatist Moreno.

Moreno's story is an interesting one. He had the look of a mountebank, but anyone who witnessed his performances saw a touch of genius.

He began as a director of the "living theater"--nightly improvisations based on the latest headlines in the Vienna newspapers. …

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