Best Movies by Farr: Brilliant Brenda Blethyn

November 16, 2009 | John Farr

One of John Farr’s favorite actresses in three British films.

Grown Ups (1980)


Working-class newlyweds Dick (Philip Davis) and Mandy (Lesley Manville) move into their threadbare new row house in Canterbury with humble plans to perk it up but little motivation to do anything but smoke fags and have a pint at the local pub. Next door live stern, callous schoolteacher Mr. Butcher (Sam Kelly) and his good-natured but unhappy wife, Christine (Lindsay Duncan). Both couples’ lives are turned inside out with the arrival of Mandy’s desperately needy sister, Gloria (Brenda Blethyn), a fussy frump who longs to make herself indispensable to everyone.


This superbly acted film by English director Mike Leigh (“Naked”) is a bleakly funny slice-of-life tale about two couples mired in somewhat depressing routines. Manville and Davis are delightfully dour as a bickering couple trying to decide whether or not to have a baby, while Kelly and Duncan’s moribund, dysfunctional relationship is alternately hilarious and gut-wrenching to observe. But the film’s greatest asset is Blethyn, whose showstopping meltdown on the Butchers’ staircase is the work of a champion actress – one fully in touch with the depths of despair. “Grown Ups” is a sweetly madcap gem for the feeble-minded fussbudget in all of us.

Secrets and Lies (1996)


After the death of her adoptive parents, soft-spoken West Indian optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out to find her birth motherwho shes surprised to learn is a white woman named Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a sad-sack factory worker with an embittered, street-sweeper daughter (Claire Rishbrook). After meeting for tea, the two eventually develop a bond, with Hortense guiding Cynthia onto a path to reconciliation with her estranged family.


Leigh’s bittersweet family drama “Secrets and Lies” showcases the superb acting talents of British veteran Blethyn, who picked up a Best Actress nomination for her (mostly improvised) work alongside co-star Jean-Baptiste. Leigh’s long, static shots-especially of the first confused meeting between Cynthia and Hortense at a London teashop-are admirable feats that give you the sense you’ve known these characters for years. Kudos also to Timothy Spall, playing the bearish brother Cynthia longs to reconnect with. For an emotionally enriching film that deals intelligently with class, race, and family conflict, check out “Secrets and Lies.”

Little Voice (1998)


Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is a shy young woman with an extraordinary singing voice, though no one knows it except her mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn). One night, Mari meets smarmy talent agent Ray (Caine) at a bar, and brings him home, where he hears LV warble a perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Smelling a sensation in the making, Ray sets out to arrange for her public debut, but the road to stardom is pockmarked with jealousy, anger, and more than a few complications.


Mark Herman’s utterly winning “Little Voice” was an indie sensation in Britain, where it charmed the socks off audiences. Blethyn’s hilariously histrionic turn as LV’s overbearing mum won her an Oscar nod for best supporting actress, and Caine’s own performance as a venal manager with a thing for Roy Orbison has a humorous bite. But the star is Horrocks herself, who gives a tour de force performance as the introvert with golden pipes (just wait for her showstopping debut). “Little Voice” might be a modest film, but it has a whole lot of heart.

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