British Cinema - Mike Leigh.

Mike Leigh.

Meantime (1983)

Mike Leigh’s oeuvre is always worth revisiting whether it’s his TV work or his feature films. Meantime (1983) was the eighth of nine features he made for British TV in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the only one not for the BBC. This, the first of his overtly politicised films, was produced by Central television for Channel 4 and premiered at the London Film Festival in 1983 before it was shown on television in December the same year.

1983 was the fourth year of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and the similarities between her policy’s and these of the David Cameron right wing government following 2015’s General Election are uncanny with the blame for the counties ills being laid squarely in lap of the ordinary working people who have to suffer the austerity forced upon them whilst the real villains, Bankers, City of London and the rest of the rich establishment are not only let of scot free but are getting wealthier. The disaffection shown in the film is to a very great extent the same that is being shown via social media today and could quite easily erupt into something far more dangerous. 

This was the first of three films by Leigh that came out of the Thatcher period and does a grand job of getting into the emotion of the times. The grim prospect of permanent unemployment looms large over the narrative. It was while Leigh was making a previous film that he heard about the suicide of two young kids who died together because they were both on the dole and felt they had no future. Although Meantime was not about this incident it did start the directors thought pattern with the main point of the film being unemployment and the work schemes that the government had produced which were for short time employment only and amounted to very little.

The movie, like many of Leigh’s films and plays, uses as its driving force the family unit. Our family live in a tower block, Bryant Court, Whiston Road in the East End of London, they are struggling to keep a float during the recession. Father Frank, (Jeff Robert) a man with responsibilities and a home, but because of the fact there is no work he is a man who has lost his dignity, leaving him bitter and frustrated. Frank is married to Mavis (Pam Ferris) who attempts to keep the peace between Frank and his two sons when there frustrations regularly erupt, all three men sign on at the Benefits Office together. The more outspoken of the two brothers is Mark (Phil Daniels), a very intelligent young man who under different circumstances should be able to make his own way out of cesspit created by Thatcher and her henchmen. The landscape of life at the time did not offer the Mark's of this world an opportunity to work and therefore building up their self-respect. His brother Colin (Tim Roth) is quite simple minded and at times easily led, but we can see quite easily right through Mark’s bravado that he loves his brother and tries to protect him, witnessed when Mark rescues him from the influence of the local bad boy, a skinhead called Coxy (Gary Oldman). The narrative underlines the contrast between the world of benefits, tower blocks and a poverty existence and Mavis' s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her Bank Manager husband John (Alfred Molina) middle class existence. They live in a nice semi detached in Chigwell, an affluent part of north London, in what appears to be a rather loveless marriage.

Again we find that Mike Leigh has produced an excellent film with no written script, finding the actors and developing and producing the story. Each actor creating and researching his or her own backstory. Uncannily the members of the ‘family’ look like they could be related! It was Alan Clarke that had recommended Tim Roth who plays Colin in this his first feature film role, and was only Gary Oldman’s second feature film in what would become a long and distinguished career. Marion Bailey is Leigh real life partner and had worked with him before and since, recently as Sophia Booth in Mr Turner (2014).

The film is honest in its depiction of life in 1983 Britain and at spelling out the feelings and aspirations of the characters and their lives.  None of the circumstances that the two brothers find themselves in can obscure the fact that they love one another. It's obvious enough that Frank and Mavis are not to blame for their circumstances and that they cope as well as they can with their economic problems and unemployment and lack of cultural stimulus, Mavis’s only outlet is a Bingo game! To me it is clear that Barbara's feelings towards Mark are due to her sexless relationship with her bank manager husband, the question of having children is raised but never explained? Barbara’s plan for Colin to work in her house on a painting and decorating project is used as a metaphor for those useless Tory short-term work schemes. Therefore as I have opined unemployment is certainly the driving force behind the movie. Who is worse off Barbara or Mavis, Barbara has choices whereas Mavis does not, based on this Mavis is the worst off of the two sisters or is she? Have human condition changed in our modern world with its class and culture clashes: would Mark get a politically motivated job, would the state stand by Colin, will a now retired Frank and Mavis be the same as we left them only collecting the State pension?

David Cameron in drag? 

A tragic and honest discourse, which mirrors modern Britain, but one that retains an important sense of humour.  Shot around the East End of London with location shooting even taking place inside an actual lift! It has a remarkable cast and is one of Mike Leigh’s most important films and one that should be revisited in the austerity ridden world of 2015!

Life is Sweet (1991)

Mike Leigh’s 1991 award winning film Life is Sweet is a character based comedy about a lower class family during a warm North London summer. Shot entirely on location in Enfield Middlesex (a part of London I lived for many years) The script was developed collectively by the director and the cast members, something that would become normal practise for Leigh. Our family consists of Wendy (Alison Steadman) who works in a baby clothing shop and teaches dance to very young children. She is the emotional core of the family and never stops giving her very own running commentary on life. She loves her husband and her twin daughters. Andy (Jim Broadbent) Wendy’s ineffectual husband, is a highly competent professional head chef in an industrial kitchen. Fond of tinkering in his shed, but never managing to complete anything. Andy and Wendy’s daughter Natalie (Clair Skinner) is a plumber who spends her non-working hours playing snooker and drinking with her male workmates. She shows no interest in dating or romance. Natalie’s twin sister, Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is bulimic, keeping a locked suitcase full of chocolate under her bed for midnight binges. Critical of every one and every thing she harbors a strange type of political correctness and indulges in even stranger sexual encounters with her unnamed lover (David Thewlis). Other characters worth mentioning are Aubrey (Timothy Spall) who considers himself a culinary genius and lusts after both Wendy and Nicola and Patsy (Stephen Rea) with a best friend like Patsy Andy does not need enemies. And if that’s not dysfunctional enough they support Spurs!

Secrets and Lies (1996)

A revisit  to that superb 1996 British movie Secrets and Lies starring, among others, Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn, Phyllis Logan and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Its Mike Leigh’s interpretation of that great British institution ‘The Family’ Terence Davies carried out a similar study eight years earlier in Distant Voices and Still Lives using snap shots of family life rather than a continues story line as Leigh has done in this film. This is narrowly concerned with the everyday experiences of one family unit.  It involves a girls search for her birth mother following the death of her adoptive parents. It’s a spellbinding film with great performances from every one involved but especially Spall and Blethyn who won the best actress prize at Cannes.

Happy Go Lucky 2008.

North London Primary School teacher Poppy Cross appears to have one main aim in life, to make everyone she comes in contact with happy, the young children she teaches, Zoe her flat sharing best friend, her two sisters, the slightly out of control younger sister Suzy and her married sister Helen who is heavily pregnant and lives in a semi detached on a moderately new estate in Southend–on-Sea with her husband. In fact every one of her close circle of friends and work colleagues all seem to love this attractive bouncy, zany, full of life 30 year-old Londoner. Well that is until she decides to take driving lessons after her beloved bicycle is stolen. Her instructor Scott turns out to be a very uptight individual and Poppy’s bright disposition only makes things worse.

Poppy always brings a smile to your face ....... 
Happy Go Lucky (2008) is a British comedy drama written and directed by Mike Leigh and a film I have enjoyed many times since its cinematic release. The utter enjoyment of this film comes from Sally Hawkins performance as the unique free spirited, openly generous and funny Poppy spreading warmth and humour like a Pied Piper of Finsbury Park. Her performance lifts the role above the simple comedic into the realms of an inspired character study. Hawkins had previously worked with the director in two other films All or Nothing (2002) and Vera Drake (2004) as well as being nominated for a Best Actress Award in such films as the excellent Made in Dagenham (2010) and Richard Ayoade debut film  Submarine (2011). As is normal with Leigh’s film’s the casting is excellent, especially Eddie Marsan (Tyrannosaur 2011) as the bigoted driving instructor whose relationship with Poppy is central to the narrative.  This is an honest and humane portrayal of modern cosmopolitan London life about openness and love and a film that I can promise will lift your spirits even on the darkest of days.

.....except when it comes to her driving instructor!

Another Year (2010)

It will certainly be a travesty if Lesley Manville is not at least nominated for an acting award for her role as Mary in 67 year-old Mike Leigh’s latest film Another Year (2010). Mary is a 50ish single woman lonely and desperate. She has a record of doomed relationships including being divorced twice; she talks too much, dresses to young and flirts with younger men. She has drink problem, which makes her overemotional on occasions.

The film unfolds in four acts each one representing the seasons and is set mainly in North London. It revolves around the slightly ‘to good to be true’, Tom and his wife Gerri (yes you heard) Tom (Jim Broadbent) is a geologist and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a medical counsellor both are on the verge of retirement, comfortable off, contented with their lot and spend their spare time tending their allotment. They have one son, 30 year old Joe (Oliver Maltman) who saunters through life as a community lawyer. They have a circle of friends some of which are quite desperate like Mary who is constantly putting the few friends she does have to the test and there’s Tom’s boy hood friend from Hull, Ken (Peter Wight), who is overweight, alcoholic, lonely and moulding.

Tom and Gerri.
Leigh’s new film deals with family ties, sustaining relationships between old friends, loneliness and getting old, something I obviously no nothing about! He makes the most of even the most inconsequential detail for example making a cup of tea. Sharp meaningful dialogue from his regular actors gives powerful and convincing performances.  I have never seen a film by Leigh that I have not enjoyed and his latest offering is no exception. There are not many films where the question ‘D’you want a cuddle’ is a cry for help!

The wonderful Lesley Manville.

Mr Turner (2014)

One of the most important elements of any movie is its stories characters and how they are drawn and presented to us on the screen. Mike Leigh is a past master in converting actor’s lines to a totally believable portrayal of their personalities.  Leigh’s films over the years have given us people like Poppy Cross in Happy Go Lucky (2008), Mary in Another Year (2010), Maurice and Cynthia Purley in the award winning Secrets & Lies (1996) and many more besides. But it’s not just the main characters that are finely illustrated but also the minor one’s. This is one of the noticeable qualities of the British director and writer’s latest movie Mr Turner (2014).

The artist.
If anything the characters in this biographical period drama are as good as anything that Leigh has done in the past. Firstly we have William ‘Billy’ Turner (Timothy Spall) an artist who painted rather drab seascapes in the 19th century, had two mistresses, the first of which, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), bore him two daughters, which he is said to have denied. His second mistress Sophia Caroline Booth (Marion Bailey) who he shared a house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea as ‘Mr Booth’ for 18 years and where he uttered his dying words “The sun is God” Both these women are totally different with Sarah the hard faced women who felt very wronged by Billy Turner, where as the twice widowed Sophia was in love with him.

'Mr Booth' with Sophia.

The two William Turners.
Two other characters are worth mentioning, Turner faithful housekeeper Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), who was devoted to her master, although he sexually abused her, and who suffered from the skin disease psoriasis. The other is Turners father, also called William (Paul Jesson) who had lived with and helped his son for 30 years since the death of his wife at a young age locked away in an insane asylum. It was this mans death in 1829 that had a profound effect on the painter who was getting ever more eccentric and also beginning to suffer bouts of depression. It’s these two characters that light up the screen every time they appear, and I can’t help feeling that the film looses something after the death of William Snr?   

The faithful housekeeper.
We could be watching an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel, the writing is that good. Along with the award winning performance of Timothy Spall, the cinematography of Dick Pope, who captures the vivid light and colour of so many of the scenes that would end up on the artistes canvas and who has worked along side Leigh on many of his movies, and the unique detail’s that make this movie head and shoulders above other period dramas and as importantly brings the 19th century world of art, culture and promiscuity to life.