Emotional Intelligence and Fatness: Secrets and Lies (1996; dir. Mike Leigh)

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle-class black optometrist, seeks out and connects with her birth mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white factory worker and general hot mess, inadvertently inheriting the rest of her biological family at the same time.  Secrets and Lies received critical acclaim upon its release, including the Palm d’Or and several Oscar nominations, largely for its talented cast and nuanced characters.  This includes Maurice, Cynthia’s financially better-off brother who is trying to keep his cooling marriage alive, played by Timothy Spall (or, as nerds might know him better, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew).

In Fat Boys: a Slim Book, Sander L. Gilman analyzes different ways fat male bodies are used in Western cultural narratives to signify values and beliefs about human nature.  One of the archetypes he discusses is the fat detective, largely citing British characters such as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald on the BBC series Cracker, as portrayed by Robbie Coltrane (if this blog takes off, I’m apparently going to have to do at least one post about Harry Potter).

“His oversized body invokes… his mode of inquiry… Such an obese body seems more feminine, but certainly not female; it is expressive of the nature of the way the detective seems to ‘think.’  His thought processes strike us as intuitive and emotional rather than analytic and objective.  In other words, the fat detective’s body is read as feminine.”  (Gilman, 154, 155)

Maurice isn’t a detective, but like the fat detectives Gilman describes, he does rely on intuitive and emotional skills to navigate both his personal and professional lives.  He often becomes a paternal figure in both of these spheres.  However, instead of being cold or autocratic (or absent, like every biological father in the film) his approach to fatherly tasks is gentle and nurturing.

When we see him in his role as a portrait photographer, he is interacting in a warm manner with a diverse array of people in varying situations, from a nervous bride to a bitter plaintiff, trying to make a connection and get them to smile.  While his detached offscreen voice and constant insistence on drawing his subjects’ attentions to his camera give him an air of authority, what comes across more strongly in these scenes is a sense that Maurice can see beauty and humanity in everyone in front of his lens.  These traits also apply to his role as a businessman.

Stuart (Ron Cook), the former owner of his photography studio, pays an unexpected visit, drunk and on the verge of aggression. Maurice patiently listens to him rant about his string of bad luck, but also sets firm boundaries around Stuart’s claim to his business and the stay of his visit, while his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) and his assistant Jane (Elizabeth Berrington) wait nervously in the next room, expecting a conflict to erupt.

Maurice is in a paternal position in his family, although given that his and Cynthia’s father is long dead and Cynthia won’t even disclose who sired her own daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), this is his place by default.  He is a provider for his sister, niece, and wife, whose reliance on him and volatile relationships with each other are reaching a breaking point.  He describes his own situation best: “I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people I love the most in the world hate each others’ guts, I’m in the middle, I can’t take it anymore!”  When the film opens, he hasn’t seen Cynthia in two years; backstory that makes him seem cold at first is quickly understood by the audience during their reunion scene, where her neediness for his affection uncomfortably borders on incestuous.  (She also jiggles his belly and makes a comment about how well-off he is, connecting his fatness to a bourgeois lifestyle that separates him from Cynthia and his working class roots).  His interactions with his wife Monica are similarly nurturing but off-kilter, despite his good intentions.  In an early scene in the movie, he comes home to find her frustrated over something she won’t talk about.  He tries to take her mind off whatever it is by offering to pour her a glass of wine and make small talk; however, his indirect approach backfires and leads to her storming out of the house.

During the climactic birthday party scene, kicked into high gear by Cynthia’s ill-timed confession that Hortense is her daughter, Maurice becomes an active force for repairing communication and relationships in his family.  “We’re all in pain,” he implores his loved ones, “Why can’t we share our pain?” He tells his family that Monica is infertile when she can’t bring herself to do so.  When Hortense is nearly paralyzed by her discomfort and isolation, he praises her bravery for seeking the truth and welcomes her to the family.  His ability to wrangle the mistruths and resentment that have built up for years with honesty and love are deeply moving to Jane:  “Oh Maurice, I wish I’d had a dad like you.  You’re lovely.”  He reaches across the table to take her hand as she breaks down crying.

Gilman’s analysis of the fat detective archetype includes another trait besides emotional sagacity: feminization.  Despite the masculine attributes discussed above, Maurice could not be described as a paragon of masculinity, especially the masculinity that is often celebrated in Western cinema.   His photography relies on empathy, intuition, and patience, and often has him as witness to familial scenarios.  His caretaker role in his own family is feminized as well, such as in scenes where he cares for Monica when she is bedridden (he would probably be described as “henpecked”).  The responsibility for his and Monica’s childlessness is placed on her body, but the lack of children also detracts from his virility.  Directly after the birthday party scene, we see Maurice and Monica spooning in bed together (a setting where previously we had only seen him taking care of her).  His plea to his family for greater communication has brought them closer together, but the sexuality between man and wife is only suggested: his bare chest, her nightie, the intimacy of the closeup shot.  Compare this to the more frankly sexual scene between Roxanne and her boyfriend.  Maurice stands in even greater contrast to his sister, who is firmly ensconced in roles and character traits that are “appropriate” to her gender.  Cynthia’s history and own sense of worth is strongly tied to her attractiveness to men (her “feminine charms”), her relationships to the people in her life, and her sexuality.

Fat bodies are degendered to a certain degree in Western culture, often detracting from the fat person being characterized fully within masculine power or feminine beauty.  Even the rare image of androgyny (that isn’t played for laughs) is usually conveyed with a slender body, such as Tilda Swinton’s.  In Maurice’s case, however, the softening of masculinity and embracing of traditionally feminine characteristics put him in a position to bring about family healing, and give the emotionally fraught story of Secrets and Lies a happy ending.

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