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Director Spotlight: Mike Leigh

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Over the past couple of months, I’ve made it my priority to delve deeper into British cinema. I dabbled in a range of cineaste circles, from Ken Loach all the way to Monty Python, but no filmmaker compelled me quite so much as humanist and social commentator Mike Leigh. His movies tend to explore the ups and downs of working-class people in England. Overflowing with empathy for even the most dislikable characters, Leigh’s filmography is extensive and profound. I selected five movies from his career, some popular and some obscure, to highlight for this edition of Director Spotlight.

Meantime (1983)

Meantime is actually Leigh’s ninth feature-length film. However, with it serving as the breakout film for beloved actors Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, as well as its recent Criterion release, it is probably the most popular of Leigh’s 80s work. Following a family in Thatcher-era London, the film explores the struggles of unemployment and the children’s resulting juvenile delinquency. Roth plays a timid, mouth-breathing young man who hangs around town with Oldman, a skinhead. Although he is offered a job by his aunt, much to the chagrin of his older brother Mark (who has been out of work much longer than him), Colin is intimidated by special treatment and apparently unresponsive to conflict. Thus, what remains to be determined is Colin’s sphere of influence. Just how malleable is he? Will he be molded by the hands of contempt?

Meantime is rough and tumble and, like the family’s economic situation, often very depressed. Although it’s certainly poignant, it does lack some of the hopefulness that has endeared so many to Leigh’s filmography (I did not watch Naked for this director spotlight, but I’m sure that if I did, I would have a very different assessment of his range). Additionally, as the family is moving about their different spheres, there’s a slight disconnect from the plight of the aunt’s marriage to Colin and Mark’s trajectory as individuals. Whereas in later films, Leigh tends to bring the story “back home” for an intimate yet thematically universal denouement, the aunt’s story comes off like a random plot thread sticking out of the needlework. It’s made all the more distracting by the fact that her husband is played by well-known actor Alfred Molina, and he straight up disappears for the second act of the film. Her inner journey is simply not as well-developed as her other family members‘.

Leigh is known for his loud, repetitive scores, which can be just as relaxing as they are overbearing. In the case of Meantime, its melancholy harpsichord score is almost too pronounced. The character wins are reticent and few and far between. Bleakness is by no means a fault, but Leigh achieves a more admirable balance in his later films. Meantime is, regardless, a feat in acting and atmosphere. It should certainly be ranked among Roth’s best work.

Streaming: The Criterion Channel

High Hopes (1988)

With a title like High Hopes, there is sure to be some manner of response to whatever criticism I had about Meantime. But there’s also a vague air of regret to the phrase; as they say, expectations are premeditated disappointment. High Hopes is filled to the brim with memorable characters, and that is probably the film’s greatest success. Phil Davis and Ruth Sheen play Cyril and Shirley, a young couple who serves as the film’s emotional core. Cyril is a disillusioned communist who is secretly a big softie, and Shirley is, through and through, sweet as pie. The film’s beginning is rather promising. Their hospitality toward a lost gentleman trying to find his sister’s address feels like home for the viewer as well. It is with the entrance of Valerie (Heather Tobias), Cyril’s sister, that the movie loses its edge.

Leigh always offers sympathy for his characters, no matter how rugged or unbearable, but the light in which he depicts Valerie cannot protect from the fact that she is a black hole that absorbs all light and puts nothing out in return. Tobias’s overwrought performance is mostly to blame for this, and it is a shame that her presence is so distracting from the grand scheme of what the movie wishes to convey about loyalty and optimism, but I can’t help but dream of a Cyril, Shirley & Wayne cut somewhere out there, just waiting to be found.

On the other hand, Lesley Manville is absolutely hilarious in her few scenes, playing the part of a pretentious lady of esteemed upbringing, and Edna Doré’s turn as grandmother Bender nails the austere bittersweetness that the movie achieves in its final minutes. It’s a worthy turn by Leigh, if a less holistic effort than his later masterpieces.

Streaming: The Criterion Channel

Life is Sweet (1990)

Life is Sweet caught me off guard. It’s not by any means Leigh’s most popular movie, but it’s not exactly underground either. It’s got a couple of well-known actors (Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, and David Thewlis to name a few), and an appealing cheeriness to its score that mimics the tone of its title. It starts off as inviting and loving. The family cracks jokes and makes the best of the worst. No one can keep Alison Steadman’s Wendy down. Of course, there is a sore thumb: Jane Horrock’s Nicola, an unhappy and perpetually snarling young woman who can find a way to be dissatisfied with anything. Merrily her twin sister and her parents roll along, either ignoring her antics or laughing her off. It seems like she’s just a one-dimensional sourpuss, designed to nurse her twitches and make snarky comments.

Of course, I should’ve known better than to peg her as a one-dimensional character. Leigh transitions from a pleasant outsider lens to the complex reality in a single swift motion. Nicola is anxious, bulimic, and very directionless. She uses a guy for sex while her parents are out, and can’t ascertain her purpose beyond a vague description of “political activist,” which mainly involves wearing an oversized T-shirt inscribed with “Bollocks to the Poll Tax.” Not all of this is her fault. But she probably needs a good kick in the shins.

Meanwhile, her father, Andy (Broadbent), has invested a great deal of money into a junky food truck, while Wendy works multiple jobs, including waitressing for the perverted and socially inept Aubrey (a very awkward Timothy Spall). The house is falling apart and the family’s best-laid plans always seem to take a backseat to the ongoing crisis in the present.

There’s a stunning conversation between Nicola and her mother in the third act of the movie that may just be the finest scene in all of Leigh’s work. There’s so much truth in Wendy’s dose of tough love. It’s even more poetic that, by the end of the film, despite their strained dynamic, they decide that togetherness is more crucial than any real-world preoccupation.

Life is Sweet is sweet; I admit that I may have a greater appreciation for its optimism because of my personal philosophies. Its ability to make me grow to love all the characters, even after the deep dive of the second act, is the best testimony to Leigh’s writing talent and humanism.

Streaming: The Criterion Channel

Secrets & Lies (1996)

Now, the Palme d’Or winner. Leigh filmed Life is Sweet, then Naked, then Secrets & Lies back to back, which is a pretty incredible run. Again, I offer no commentary on Naked because I have not seen it, but whatever made the magic happen in Life is Sweet, Leigh cranked to full blast in Secrets & Lies. Leigh leans into societal cleavages of class and race in his 1996 masterpiece about an adopted Black woman who finds out that her birth mother is white. I don’t know if I was expecting a greater deal of drama to ensue beyond that simple conflict, but its success is in large part due to the refining of the melodrama until the final act. Brenda Blethyn’s emotional revolving-door-of-a-performance is masterful and made all the more interesting by the frequent use of long takes. Like organic, in-house live theater, the characters are matched face à face in a variety of different scenarios until the long-anticipated 21st birthday party the film has been hinting at all along.

Secrets & Lies is elegant, despite its messiness. Its staging is meaningful and provocative. The title sounding like a soap opera is almost deliberately deceptive, as although “the bastard child” has long been a subject of interest, Leigh no more wishes to create artificial drama as he does make his characters look stupid. He simply loves people and to tell stories, and Secrets & Lies is a shining example of his dedication to those passions.

The ending of the movie is one of my favorites in recent memory. The rawness of a Leigh-crafted interpersonal breakthrough, even if his characters act irrationally in response, is fuel for celebration. Its extra minutes of runtime are more than earned in its relationship development, so don’t let the 142 minutes scare you away from one of the finest dramedies of the 1990s.

Streaming: HBO Max, The Criterion Channel

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Happy-Go-Lucky is just an all-around good time. I have nothing bad to say about movies that aim to dissect eternal enthusiasm, especially without a degree of scrutiny or judgment. Some people are just permanently “glass half full.” Or, “glass overflowing.”

Sally Hawkins plays the very bubbly Poppy Cross, an elementary school teacher who always manages to see the best in people. Daunt-be-gone, because she is here to have a good time. Of course, her demeanor is not always the most convenient for others in her life who are looking for something beyond good humor. But the good she has to offer is incredibly rare. Even if she doesn’t always meet one person’s needs, her temperament proves essential to an open-minded view of the world. She clearly makes a great school teacher; perhaps the innocence of children is a decidedly more comforting environment than the jaded world of adults.

While less visually rich than Life is Sweet and Secrets & Lies, late 2000s Leigh is still Leigh in full form. He handles his characters with grace, and Poppy is one of his finest creations to date. Although I wish he modernized his repetitive score schtick to the contemporary environment of the late 2000s, I do recognize that the music is one of his staples. If I have to suffer through some schlocky, redundant tune to see Sally Hawkins trying to dance the flamenco in a million clanking bracelets, suffer I will.

Available to rent on VOD



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