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The Unspoken Truth (AKA Living the Lie) (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

brianne clay daughter margaret

Principal social themes: women’s rights, suicide/depression, child abuse/spouse abuse

Frankovich Productions. PG rating. Featuring: Lea Thompson, Patricia Kalember, James Marshall, Robert Englund, Dick O’Neill, Sharon Shawnessey, Karis Paige Bryant, Mona Lee Fultz, Gary Carter, Norman Bennett, Jeanne Evans, Gail Cronauer, Guich Koock. Written by J. A. Mitty. Cinematography by Neil Roach. Edited by Martin Nicholson. Music by Mark Snow. Produced by Norman I. Cohen and Donna Ebbs. Directed by Peter Werner. Color. 95 minutes.


An extraordinary complex story, this telefilm gained such acclaim that it received theatrical distribution after its debut on television, a unique accomplishment. The story focuses on two families so dominated by the father that in one, a daughter abandons her role as mother to her own daughter, and in the other, a wife takes the blame for a murder committed by her husband. The essence of the story is how these two women regain their rights, both legally and emotionally, and regain control of their lives. The Unspoken Truth originally premiered on the Lifetime Cable Network.


The storyline of The Unspoken Truth is rather intricate and told in a sophisticated manner with numerous flashbacks and unexpected revelations. This abbreviated synopsis presents the story in a straightforward, chronological fashion. Thomas Cleary (Dick O’Neill), “Da,” is the authoritative head of his family living in Texas. When his daughter, Margaret (Patricia Kalember), becomes pregnant, he sends her to Ireland to give birth. Instead of placing her daughter Brianne up for adoption, Margaret brings the child back to America. Da agrees to raise the child only if he and his wife are listed as the parents, and Margaret agrees to pose as Brianne’s sister. When Da’s wife dies, he marries again. Margaret marries Ernest Trainer (Robert Englund), a kind and supportive husband. Brianne (Lea Thompson) grows up and marries Clay Hawkins (James Marshall), a domineering hellraiser. They have a daughter, Lily. Clay never provides a good home for them, and Brianne works to make ends meet.

Years pass, and Clay gets into a barroom brawl. He goes home and returns to the bar with two loaded guns in his truck. Brianne tries to calm him down. Dale Modell, the man who fought with Clay, comes over to the truck and continues the argument. He tries to grab Clay’s gun and is shot dead in the struggle. Clay is arrested, and he convinces Brianne to say that it was she who killed Dale Modell. At the trial, both Brianne and Clay are convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Da has a heart attack and dies. Lily is placed in the custody of Clay’s mother, an unpleasant and harsh woman. Brianne appeals for a new trial, but is turned down by a stern female judge. Clay continues to control Brianne even though they are both imprisoned. Lily is miserably unhappy living with Clay’s mother. Margaret breaks her promise to Da and announces that she is Brianne’s mother. Since the maternal grandmother is given preference over the paternal grandmother in custody cases, Margaret then claims the right to raise Lily. With her daughter’s happiness at stake, Brianne defies Clay and support’s Margaret’s claim. Margaret manages to snatch Lily, and the court grants her custody. Lily swears an affidavit that Clay beat both her and her mother. Brianne is granted a new trial because she was a victim of battered woman’s syndrome, which explains her perjury. Brianne is eventually cleared of the murder, divorces Clay, and reunites with her mother and daughter.


The script of The Unspoken Truth is a tangle of numerous social concerns, but the central issue appears to be women’s rights, both in legal terms and strictly human terms, revolving around Margaret Cleary Trainer and her daughter Brianne Cleary Hawkins. Margaret is first bullied by her father to abandon her identity as a mother and live a lie, posing as her daughter’s sister. She only asserts her legal rights when her granddaughter is mistreated. Brianne in many ways had been manipulated and repressed since birth. It is not surprising that her choice of a husband was a control freak like her grandfather, but she was not prepared for the physical abuse that backed up her husband’s authority. Brianne would have opposed Clay, however, if she had known that her daughter was experiencing similar abuse. Clay’s method of domination even when they are both imprisoned is insidious, using their daughter as a pawn. The script also provides a case study of battered woman’s syndrome, demonstrating how Clay forced his wife to confess to his own criminal act. Viewers might find it interesting to compare the two judges who oversee Brianne’s case. Other individuals worth comparing are Da and Clay, Clay and his mother, and the prosecuting and defense attorneys. What do their attitudes demonstrate about the issues of abuse and women’s rights?

Among the many flawed and troubled characters in The Unspoken Truth , two stand out for close study: Ernest Trainer and Lily Hawkins. Ernest is a powerful and positive role model as Margaret’s husband, a gentle man who is a pillar of support for his wife and granddaughter. Brilliantly played by Robert Englund, the actor best remembered for his role as the monstrous Freddie Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, this performance manages to portray sincere and undemanding love. Karis Paige Bryant is exceptional as Lily, a remarkably poised and intelligent young girl who manages to get to the heart of the matter with her observations. Her testimony when she is questioned by the lawyers seems refreshing among all the deceptions and fabrications in the story. That Clay’s daughter should demonstrate such integrity and compassion is ultimately a tribute to her upbringing by Brianne.

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