The movie is over and I’m sitting here in a volcano of emotion. I’m thinking about young Cynthia, unmarried and pregnant, and the circumstances that shamed her into giving up her baby at birth. I’m thinking about how agonizing that choice must’ve been, and what harboring a secret like that, for so long, must’ve done to her soul. I’m thinking about Cynthia, this lonely, poorly educated single mother, who despite all odds chose to birth (not Vera Drake) this child, and the harrowing impact this choice incurred on her family.
I’m thinking about Hortense, the abandoned baby, about how rootless she feels as an adult after losing her foster parents, and I’m trying to get into her headspace of “why my biological mother would abandon me?” As a father, this question kills me. It kills me because I’d never want to live in a world where my son didn’t know that I loved him, and that if circumstances compelled me to give him up it would have nothing to do with him and everything to do with my own failed reasons and choices. I think Cynthia is in a similar boat. She probably at one point felt terrible about abandoning her child, and she’s now living proof of what guilt does to the soul over time when people repress and refuse to come clean with their secrets and lies.
Part of the reason Cynthia’s such a trembling wreck has a lot to do with having lost her identity as a mother, and how she’s internalized that failure while raising Roxanne. In her eyes, she’s failed Hortense, failed Roxanne, and is desperate to find a surrogate to cover the wounds. I’m thinking about how Roxanne is a reflection of Cynthia, someone who’s young, stubborn, half-baked and setting herself up to become her mother by repeating the same pattern of behavior.
I’m thinking about daughters abandoned, like Hortense, daughters lost, like Roxanne, and mothers with dark secrets, like Cynthia, who’s estranged from her children despite once being connected to them at birth. I’m thinking about how messy and difficult it is to reconcile the past with the present, how painful repressed resentments are, how decades of hurt and grief torture the hell out of us. I’m also thinking of how redemptive the power of truth can be to heal aching souls when we finally allow our secrets to ventilate among our deepest peers. In a finale whose cup runneth over, Leigh heart-searingly shows us what the power of honesty can do for human relationships, if only we allow ourselves to take off our masks—our need to be seen as “having it all together”—and step into the light. “We’re all in pain,” one character says, “why can’t we share our pain?”
I. Felt. Every. Moment. Of. This. Film.
The Criterion disc includes new and archival interviews with director Mike Leigh and the film’s other cast and crew. The booklet includes an essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark.