Whenever people tell me that Mike Leigh is one of their favourite filmmakers, I’m always surprised to hear it. Even though he’s also one of mine, I forget to think of him as an actual filmmaker.
His brilliant work is derived from his achievements in theatre and it bears those origins on screen, though I don’t mean that as criticism. He returns to some character archetypes frequently (the soulful homeless man, the hopelessly chirpy working-class woman) and the conflicts he puts his characters through feel like the stuff of stage drama. He makes them relevant in cinema from the beginning, then as he goes along, directing more films and making his multi-levelled narratives feel more cinematic. (Meantime just feels like watching people, while Another Year plays almost like a thriller.)
A common mistake people make about Leigh’s work is saying that it is improvised. It’s absolutely not, but is rather a script created from work that he does with his actors, creating characters from birth to death and putting them in situations together in which their improvised interactions eventually result in a finished work. In the eighties, he revolutionized the kitchen-sink melodrama. These films were celebrated for nailing the anxieties of the less fortunate under Thatcher’s conservative reign. In the nineties, he applied his observations of simple lives in the less glamorous parts of London to high concept dramas (and in the case of his Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies, created his masterpiece).
As the millennium turned, Leigh surprised us all by rearranging our notions of British period pieces, first with Topsy-Turvy, in which he applies his keen eye for small arcs and spontaneous narratives to big-budget costume pictures. Criterion Channel’s Mike Leigh retrospective is missing a number of these later films, likely for rights reasons. (Mr. Turner and Peterloo are available freely through the library via Hoopla.) Vera Drake is the closest you get to a costume film and Another Year isn’t screening in Canada, but it’s still a satisfying summation of this genius director’s awe-inspiring work. Presented in chronological order:
Economic recession means that a family of four live in their tower apartment with only mom (Pam Ferris) actually working, while dad and two sons (one of them played by a debuting Tim Roth) live on the dole. Older brother Mark (Phil Daniels) spends his days getting into trouble with his unpredictable skinhead friend (Gary Oldman, also at the birth of his impressive career), while Roth gets the chance to pull himself out of the doldrums of squalor when his aunt (Marion Bailey), who has married wealthier John (Alfred Molina), offers to pay him to help redecorate her bedroom. The politics of class conflict are sublimated quite smoothly into the family drama, with the only disappointment being that Ferris’s character starts out seeming like she will be so much more complicated and interesting than she ends up being by the end.
The Short & Curlies (1987)
This twenty-minute short is a charming comedy that Leigh, in his always spot-on accuracy, wisely knows doesn’t need to be a feature. It revolves around Sylvestra Le Touzel as a woman who works in a drugstore and is being romanced by David Thewlis as a young man who can only express himself through goofy humour. She slowly lets him into her life while frequently escaping to the salon where her mother (Alison Steadman, one of many a chirpy and bright heroic tart in Leigh’s oeuvre) gives her encouragement and advice.
High Hopes (1988)
Like Meantime, this is an examination of Thatcher’s England, featuring a terrific Phil Davis and Ruth Sheen as a couple who espouse their socialist beliefs proudly but whose conflict over having a child causes issues. (He thinks the world isn’t Marxist enough for it to be worthwhile.) His sister (Heather Tobias) is enjoying the life of the nouveau riche in her over-decorated house and is obsessed with buying things, and the two siblings have nothing in common except their aged mother (Edna Dore). She lives alone in a big council-owned house next door to a posh couple (Lesley Manville, David Bamber) who represent the eventual gentrification of London’s central neighbourhoods. Leigh’s criticism of England’s returning to a myth of pre-war class division isn’t off the mark, but the first couple are the only characters who are real people, the rest are caricatures. It’s hard to watch the sillier moments of the film now that we’ve seen him tackle similar conflicts in later films with more marked realism (like Cynthia and her more successful brother in Secrets & Lies).
Life Is Sweet (1990)
This is where Leigh really begins to commit himself to challenging the notion that presenting working-class London characters has to mean showing life at its most bitter and dour. Alison Steadman (Mrs. Leigh in real life at the time) is trying to keep it together and maybe even inspire the rest of her family to have her positive outlook on life, which is not so easy with her one daughter (Jane Horrocks) full of a bitterness that she loves to take out on her family members. Her twin sister (Claire Skinner) seems happy enough to live and let live. Jim Broadbent is compelling as the father of the family in a work told in Leigh’s usual non-plot-oriented style, featuring terrific acting and a beautifully emotional outcome.
Mike Leigh’s harshest drama is also where we first see him turn towards creating a cinematic visual landscape different than the usual natural-looking tower-block apartments. David Thewlis is extraordinary as a dark version of his The Short & Curlies character, a bitter and verbally uncontainable drifter named Johnny who has left Manchester following an assault of a woman and come to London to seek out his old friend (Lesley Sharp). Greg Cruttwell gives a terrifying performance as an arrogant toff who drives around the city harming the women he picks up, and eventually both these men end up at Sharp’s flat with her self-destructive, unpredictable roommate (a bold performance by the late, great Katrin Cartlidge). It’s the hardest of all Leigh’s films to watch despite its attempt to lighten things up with Clarie Skinner’s humorously testy character in the end, but it presents such extreme characters and situations without ever tipping into the ridiculous. Somehow, despite his bad behaviour and big mouth, Thewlis manages to make something sympathetic and almost endearing out of his furious antihero. The star and director received awards at Cannes for Best Actor and Director, elevating Leigh to a new level of fame that would peak with his next film.
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste come as close to true-to-life acting as can be expected. You might sometimes feel like you’re watching a documentary during Secrets & Lies. Blethyn plays Cynthia, an aging, working-class white woman who is found by Hortense (Jean-Baptiste), the Black daughter she had given up for adoption at birth years before. Unlike the usual murky British kitchen-sink dramas, this one has warmth, talent and beauty, plus a fantastic supporting cast with stories of their own: Cynthia’s brother and sister-in-law (Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan) can’t have children, and Cynthia’s daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook) is unhappy and resentful about everything that’s going on, especially with her birthday coming up. It all comes out in a climactic, all-stops-out, tear-inducing dinner scene in the third act. Lesley Manville is terrific as the social worker who helps Hortense find her mother.
Career Girls (1997)
Mike Leigh scores a rare misfire with this drab story of two college friends reuniting. Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda arrives in London to visit Cartlidge six years after they last saw each other. Their scenes together are frequently interrupted by flashes back to their college days when they shared a grimy bedsit and were in a different headspace. Cartlidge is a frenetic mass of raging insecurity (with a very aggravating accent) and Steadman timid and ashamed of her dermatitis-scarred face. Leigh creates a genuine sense of friendship between these two by the end, the only glimmer of quality that hearkens to the merits of his general oeuvre, but the characterizations are not very interesting and his usual process of working with his actors to create rich back stories seems to have resulted in a great deal of material left on the cutting room floor. Most of the scenes that remain are irritating and lack dramatic compulsion.
All Or Nothing (2002)
Bored, middle-aged couple Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville do their best to keep it together while their children live in emotional misery. Their son is a foul-mouthed git who sits on his lazy duff and watches TV all day, while their daughter works in a nursing home and retreats into her own personal silence to escape her unhappiness. Meanwhile, their neighbours have problems of their own, with one couple marred by the wife’s alcoholism and their daughter’s promiscuity, while neighbour Ruth Sheen (in a delightful standout performance) has to deal with her daughter’s abusive relationship to an undeserving boy while her own optimism seems to be out of place in her surroundings. It doesn’t go anywhere we never knew Mike Leigh to go before, but it is full of marvellous moments.
Vera Drake (2004)
Imelda Staunton plays a 1950s’ charwoman whose family is not aware of her frequent visits to desperate pregnant women. Many of these girls are young teenagers who need abortions to escape the wrath of their family, the rejection of their society, or the worsening of their already dire economic circumstances. Drake has performed the procedure on countless young women for years before an unfortunate incident with a girl who nearly dies gets her caught by the police and brought in on criminal charges. This quietly-told, perfectly acted melodrama benefits from a sterling cast and an awe-inspiring performance by Staunton in the lead. It wisely chooses not to argue the morality of its controversial theme but instead examines the situations that bring about the desire for them in the first place: almost all the women in this film are trying to save their own lives by risking them in order to to get out of a socially demonized position.
Plucky lass Poppy (Sally Hawkins) teaches young children, hangs out with her girlfriends, and takes driving lessons with an astonishingly angry instructor (Eddie Marsan). She’s always up for a good laugh and never able to take anything too seriously. One might think that Poppy is simple or ignorant, but as the film progresses through experiences such as flamenco lessons, a Fellini-esque surreal encounter with a homeless man in a park, visits with family, etc., we see that she is actually a thoroughly responsible and aware human whose natural gift to see the bright side of things simply cannot be quashed. The scene at her sister’s where Poppy gives her summation of her life is so moving and inspiring because her positive thinking is based on a loving but practical view of herself and the people around her. Arresting and charismatic, it’s buoyantly in the air by Hawkins’ exquisite work and the strong acting by the cast surrounding her, plus Leigh’s dedication to making everything not real, but natural.
Another Year (2010)
A group of characters are observed throughout four seasons in this lyrically beautiful film. Therapist Ruth Sheen and geologist Jim Broadbent are a couple who are the perfect hosts and shoulders to cry on, while medical secretary Lesley Manville is a manic ball of insecurity, feeling the pressures of aging and loneliness and completely unable to be honest with herself about what is dissatisfying about her life. The situations that the group of them get into are heartbreaking, hilarious and sometimes downright terrifying as Leigh puts Manville in the hot spot and watches as she lashes out at everyone around her in one way or the other. The long, theatrically-minded takes of Leigh’s previous films have now become short, razor-sharp edits that go back and forth between characters and make sure to give just as much attention to each individuals’ reactions as much as their expressions. Imelda Staunton has an incredible cameo in the opening scene.