Thorold Dickinson’s penultimate feature will probably be noted more for having Audrey Hepburn’s breakthrough role over anything else. Hepburn’s turn is a sprightly one, with the type of spirit needed for the role that she plays within the narrative. However, if we consider the film’s story, in which a former refugee is plunged into a murky political world of assassinations and conspirators, this Ealing new release will have a feeling of timeliness.
The film’s title may suggest a type of dysfunctional, middle-class suburban family drama, but Secret People is a tale set in the years before the second world war, in which two sisters flee to London while their father is executed by their country’s dictator. Finding shelter with a kindly uncle, the siblings swiftly adjust to London life, working in their uncle’s café. The older sister Maria (Valentina Cortese) quietly hopes to become a writer, her younger sister Nora (Hepburn) has dreams of becoming a dancer.Things take a turn when Valentina’s handsome yet guarded boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani) reappears on the scene. His dealings are secretive, his intentions with the two sisters are unclear. However, their desire to help him as a “journalist” seems to be of value to him.
Coming out of the blocks during the early 50s, Secret People’s formal manner and bittersweet tone manages to capture a feeling of lost innocence. Its setting being before the rise of the world’s most known dictator could have possibly made the film an interesting curio at a time where the audience were only just recovering from the second world war. Watching the film now in the era of populist politics and countries with divided aspirations is an intriguing one. It’s a film which seems to highlight refugees as an assist to their new societies, but is also strangely weak-willed when it comes to the pull of handsome past lovers who’ve been missing for seven years.
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The driving force, after a rather slow build-up, is the tension and conflict found in Cortese’s character of Maria as she is made an accessory to a crime committed seemingly for the “good of the people”. When she sees how the methods used can also do damage to the same folk, she is greatly disturbed. Cortese finds depths to highlight her troubled feelings, but the film falls flat in managing to pull a viewer with it. Secret People does well not to detail any political groups by name, yet it’s hard not to view the shady otherness of Louis’ committee a certain way. By drawing the lines so rigidly the film is never allowed to be as complex as it perhaps wishes to be.
Where Dickinson does succeed, however, is with a competently handled movie from a technical standpoint. Despite some choppy transitions early on, this is a film which brings some subtle drama into its neatly framed compositions and noir-style lighting. Dickinson’s use of techniques may feel a little transparent now: reverse shots at Dutch angles after a pivotal argument, and the use of a lit cigarette to illuminate a shady character in the background may seem quaint in a modern world of cinema. However, when Dickinson decides upon a long tracking shot or similar, it feels like a decision to aid the story, as opposed to pandering.
It’s difficult to see this knocking the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or Roman Holiday (1953) off a Hepburn fan’s favourite list. Secret People as a whole isn’t the most revealing or passionate film about conspirators or terrorism. But as a neatly put together, well-performed feature from time past, there are worse ways of spending a lazy cinema day.