The Secret Laughter of Women

UK/Canada 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A seaside town in Southern France. Nimi, a single mother raising her young son Sammy, is under pressure from family and friends to find a husband otherwise she will be ostracised by her Nigerian community. The handsome new Reverend Fola, who is clearly attracted to Nimi, seems an ideal candidate. Sammy, however, has struck up a friendship with middle-aged, wealthy white ex-pat Brit Matthew, the author of the Saracen comic books Sammy so admires.

Thanks to Sammy's plotting, Matthew meets Nimi. He hires her to redesign his sprawling garden. Eventually she begins an affair with him. Her mother and friends disapprove. Matthew's wife turns up on a brief visit. She warns Nimi they have an open marriage; Nimi is liable to be hurt if she carries on seeing Matthew. Disconsolate, Nimi breaks off the affair and prepares to marry Fola. Matthew saves Sammy from drowning, but even his heroics don't seem to sway her. Matthew turns up just as Nimi is about to be married and asks her to reconsider. Finally convinced that he is sincere, she breaks off with Fola and commits to Matthew instead.


Like Bertolucci's recent film Besieged, The Secret Laughter of Women is about the relationship between a young African woman, in this case Nimi, a single mother with a mischievous eight-year-old son, and an aloof but charming ex-pat Englishman Matthew. Where Bertolucci's film was set in a grey, autumnal Rome and was full of jarring handheld camerawork, Peter Schwabach's debut feature unfolds in a French coastal town at the height of summer. The blue skies and the flamboyant costumes worn by the Nigerian women who swarm around Nimi, advising her about whom she should marry and how she should behave, help to create a mood of benevolence. With its travel-show locations and such warm, luxuriant colours to the fore, we know right away no one is going to suffer.

O. O. Sagay's perceptive, often witty screenplay shows the burden that family, church and community place on the free-spirited single mum. "This society is like a blanket against the cold world outside," one character tells Nimi, but the downside, as Matthew warns her, is that if she does do exactly what this society demands, she risks "burying her life under an avalanche of duty and obligation." For an outsider like Matthew, the close-knit Nigerian community seems more hostile than welcoming. He doesn't understand its codes, its tradition of hospitality or the meaning of the mysterious proverbs the women quote. But this is a romantic comedy, not a searching drama about exile or cultural and racial difference. It's obvious Nimi and Matthew are going to get together in the end, however fraught their courtship. The Reverend Fola, Matthew's rival, may be good-looking and command respect from Nimi's interfering, if kind-hearted, mother, but the moment Nimi's son Sammy spills food on him in church, we realise that he is far too priggish and too censorious for Nimi.

Sammy is the go-between who introduces his mother to Matthew, but as a character in his own right, he threatens to unbalance the film. What otherwise seems like an adult romance turns into a kids' movie whenever he's around. There are some bizarre shifts in tone. One moment, Sammy and Matthew are chatting about comic-book heroes and plotting mischief; the next, Matthew's snobbish, arrogant wife is demanding to know why he doesn't want to go to bed with her. Still, even if the clunky, boy's-own action sequences (such as Sammy's near drowning) don't sit at all comfortably with the scenes delving into the characters' troubled love lives, and even if some of the romantic scenes verge on the cornball The Secret Laughter of Women is warm, easygoing and picturesque - a film very hard to dislike.


Peter Schwabach
O.O. Sagay
Jon Slan
O.O. Sagay
Director of Photography
Martin Fuhrer
Michael David
Production Designer
Christopher J. Bradshaw
Yves Laferrière
©Secret Laughter of Women Ltd./Paragon Productions (Secret) Inc.
Production Companies
Paragon Entertainment Corporation/HandMade Films present with the participation of the European Co-production Fund (UK) and BSkyB in association with The Arts Council of England an Elba Films/Paragon Entertainment Corporation production
With the participation of the Government of Canada-Canadian Film and Video Production Tax Credit Program
Developed with the support of the European Script Fund
Executive Producer
Gareth Jones
Line Producers
Michael MacDonald
Michael Dreyer
Associate Producer
Janet E. Cuddy
Executive in Charge of Production
Jan Roldanus
Production Supervisor
Nick O'Hagan
Production Co-ordinators
Sara Morris
French Crew:
Patricia Douglas
Production Manager
French Crew:
Gilles Normandin
Unit Manager
French Crew:
Jean-Pierre Millas
Location Managers
Amanda Stevens
French Crew:
Patrick O'Hanian
Post-production Supervisor
Charlene Olson
Assistant Directors
Simon Moseley
Sallie Hard
Ben Burt
Phil Stoole
Rebecca Sutton
Script Supervisor
Annie Edwards
John Hubbard
Daniel Hubbard
Cor 'In' Art
Susan Forrest
Collective Artistes of the Performing Arts
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Jacques Renoir
Underwater Director of Photography
Mark Silk
Camera Operator
Mike Miller
Special Effects Supervisor
Graham Longhurst
Art Directors
Tristan Peatfield
French Crew:
Vladimir Kostovic
Set Decorator
Liz Griffiths
Garden Designer
Mark Walker
Garden Adviser
French Crew:
Michel Lesaint
Ben Smith
Storyboard Artist
Douglas Ingram
Costume Designer
Louise Stjernsward
Costume Supervisor
Suzy Freeman
Nigerian Wardrobe Consultant
Cordelia Anosike
Make-up/Hair Design
Stevie Hall
Make-up Artists
Petrona Winton
Film Effects Inc
Music Recording Engineer
Luc Papineau
Sound Mixer
Jim Greenhorn
Re-recording Mixers
Daniel Pellerin
Peter Kelly
Keith Elliott
Supervising Sound Editor
Fred Brennan
Sound Effects Editor
Alan Geldart
John Laing
Terry Burke
Stunt Co-ordinator
Alan Stuart
Colin Firth
Matthew Field
Nia Long
Nimi Da Silva, 'Big Eyes'
Dan Lett
Joke Silva
Ariyon Bakare
Reverend Fola
Joy Elias Rilwan
Mama Fola
Hakeem Kae-Kazim
Doctor Ade
Bella Enahoro
Madame Rosa
Oluwafisayo Roberts
Sammy Da Silva
Rakie Ayola
Talking Drum
Caroline Goodall
Jenny Field
Ellen Thomas
Bitter Leaf
Thomas Baptiste
Papa Fola
Willie Jonah
old uncle
Ho Yi
Kemi Baruwa
Mike Koohefkan
Jean Claude Delgado
Nicole Blanchet
Mrs Delgado
Maddalena Milani
Catherine Koohefkan
Frank Bellorti
Optimum Releasing
8,919 feet
99 minutes 6 seconds
Colour by
Rank Film Laboratories/DeLuxe Toronto
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011