Following the death of her mum, young optician Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to seek out her birth mother, whom she is surprised to discover is white. Elsewhere, factory worker Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn) lives with her sulky 20-year-old daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) and has a fraught relationship with her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), who runs his own photography business, and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Cynthia then gets a phone call from Hortense, who tells her that she is the daughter she gave up for adoption as a teenager. Things come to a head when Cynthia invites Hortense to Roxanne's 21st birthday party at Maurice and Monica's, suggesting that she pose as a friend from work.
This film provides examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Stuart, whom Maurice bought the photography business from years ago. When they offer him a cup of coffee in the office on his return, he takes out a flask and pours a shot of liquor into it.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Cynthia doesn't know about Monica's fertility problem, so she does this by accident while talking to Maurice."You're never going to make me an auntie, then?"
- Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Maurice and Monica have a tender, heartfelt scene near the movie's ending, where she confess that she loves him more than he can ever imagine. And he responds by saying that as long as they have each other, it doesn't matter very much that they can't have kids. Granted, despite the bitterness and hostility they display towards each other in many scenes, there are many earlier hints that they truly do care about each other.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: Well, there's the brother and sister, and the brother's wife who clearly cannot stand the sister. There's the sister's pouty, hostile daughter. And there's the sister's other daughter, who was given away in adoption at birth.
- The Cameo: Several actors who have appeared in other Mike Leigh films appear briefly as subjects of Maurice's photographs, including Liz Smith (High Hopes) as an old lady with her daughter, Ruth Sheen (High Hopes, Another Year) as one half of a couple, Tom Wight (Naked (1993)) as part of a family, and Phil Davis (Vera Drake, among others) as one of a group of men.
- Captain Obvious: Cynthia and Maurice are talking about the state of disrepair that their old family home (where Cynthia still lives) has fallen into. Cynthia says their father's room is like "Niagara Falls".Maurice: Has it got a leak, then?
Cynthia: Yeah. [Beat] Only when it's rainin'.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Cynthia, who was already in a state of high agitation, is bursting with tears after the first phone call from Hortense. She is shaking and lighting up a cigarette after she hangs up. She's nervously puffing on another cigarette as she awaits her first meeting with Hortense.
- Dinner and a Show: Cynthia has the epically bad judgment to drop the truth on everyone at a family dinner completely out of nowhere, while Hortense is using the bathroom no less. Hortense cringes with embarrassment once she comes out of the toilet and finds out what happened. Roxanne for her part flips out and shuts herself in that same bathroom. A violent family argument ensues in which Maurice and Monica's secret (her infertility) also comes out.Maurice: [horrified] You don't half-choose your moments, Cynthia.
- The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: The cause of Monica's infertility is never mentioned, although some have speculated that it might have been endometriosis.
- Disappeared Dad: Roxanne's father was an American med student named Bingham, whom Cynthia met while on vacation. Cynthia eventually reveals that he simply skipped out on her one day. (We never do find anything out about Hortense's father, except that he had sex with Cynthia when she was 15.)
- Dramatically Missing the Point: Cynthia thinks that Maurice and Monica don't have children because Monica doesn't want any while Maurice does. Going by the way she tries to cut her mother off when she confronts Monica, Roxanne has probably already cottoned on to the real reason.
- Law of Inverse Fertility: Cynthia had two unplanned pregnancies, while Maurice and Monica tried to have kids for 15 years with no success.
- Leave the Camera Running:
- The first long talk between Cynthia and Hortense, set in a diner as Hortense shows Cynthia the documents and a weepy Cynthia realizes the truth, is a single eight-minute take in which the camera never moves. The two are held in closeup the whole time.
- The barbecue lunch that starts to get slightly uncomfortable as people ask questions about Hortense is shown in a similar five-minute take with a still camera.
- Left Hanging: Cynthia never says anything about Hortense's biological father, refusing to answer both times that Hortense asks her.
- Like a Son to Me: Maurice and Monica, despite not having seen her in a long time, are very fond of Roxanne, partly to compensate for not having any children of their own.
- The Noun and the Noun: Secrets & Lies
- Oh, Crap!: The dawning look of realization on Cynthia's face as she realizes she did have sex with a black man once and Hortense really is her daughter.
- Plot-Triggering Death: The death of Hortense's adoptive mother is what leads her to find out about her birth mother.
- Surprisingly Happy Ending: Once Roxanne gets over the shock of finding out about Hortense, she actually starts to warm up to the idea of having her as her half-sister.
- Teen Pregnancy: Cynthia was 15 when she had Hortense.
- Title Drop: "Secrets and lies. We're all in pain. Why can't we share our pain?" says Maurice at the family dinner after all the secrets come spilling out at once.
- Verbal Tic: Cynthia has a tendency to call everyone "sweetheart", especially when agitated.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: When Cynthia first gets a phone call from Hortense and realizes it's her biological daughter, after she hangs up the phone, she runs to the kitchen and we hear her puke into the sink.