There is no way to truly do justice to the decades of incredible theatrical, televisual and cinematic work of the genius that is Mike Leigh. He has, since the 1960s, worked tirelessly creating: drama, comedy, pathos, empathy, love, hatred, politics, harmony, conflict, nihilism and hope through an orchestra of characters and creative endeavour.
Mike Leigh is a true artist. He has not only been involved in innumerable film, TV shows, and plays but also created his own production modus operandi in the process. He is rightly well regarded for working intimately with his actors organically creating character and stories from the kernel of an emotion or idea. His characters are developed over months of painstaking preparation and rehearsal often featuring representations of the working or under-classes. There are no superheroes or special effects but rather raw emotion and feelings within his body of work.
With Mike Leigh’s latest film Peterloo (2018) premiering at recent film festivals worldwide, it seems timely to look back on some of his best work. These are some of his finest works as they have much to say about humanity, gender, politics, comedy, society, life, and death. They are also very entertaining in that inimitable “Mike Leigh” style, he has carved out all on his own.
Abigail’s Party (1977)
Opening as a stage play in 1977, the seminal tragic-comedy Abigail’s Party sold out for months at the Hampstead Theatre when first released. A filmed TV version was released later too much acclaim that year and starred: Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse, Thelma Whiteley and Tim Stern. It’s a comedy of crumbling relationships featuring the passive aggressive clashes between the aspirational classes. The performances, notably from Steadman as the brash and formidable Beverley, are astute, over-the-top but somehow hilariously nuanced too. Moreover, the barbed dialogue and bitchy asides are perfectly delivered during a dinner party that, once seen, will have you laughing throughout, yet somehow leave you feeling quite sad by the end.
The epitome of classic working-class-kitchen-sink-council-estate-bitter-sweet-comedy, Meantime, features a who’s who of now well-known actors including: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Phil Daniels, Peter Wight, Pam Ferris and Alfred Molina. Set amidst the bleak concrete landscape of East London the episodic story focusses on the Pollock family, notably the unemployed brothers portrayed by Daniels and Roth. The former is an answer-for-everything-clever-dick while Roth’s Colin is the more subdued, shy and possibly autistic one, very much in his brother’s shadow. Furthermore, a very young-looking Oldman pops up as a bored, thuggish, glue-sniffing and racist skinhead who bullies those around him, especially Colin. Overall, Meantime evokes memories of my own childhood growing up on a rough Battersea council estate and captures the ennui and inertia of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain. While it may sound depressing there’s also some classic dialogue and a number of hilarious exchanges between the family and characters which certainly silvers the dark, grey clouds on the horizon.
We need to talk about, Johnny! Arguably, of all the characters and creations from Mike Leigh, Johnny Fletcher is the darkest manifestation and representation of his worldview. Unlike the permanently positive Poppy from Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008), Johnny is a black, biting and bilious shadow who drifts like smoke from North to South with no aim other than to attack and depress those around him. Sardonic and severe in his outlook, Johnny’s misanthropy knows no bounds as he angrily castigates his ex-girlfriend’s lack of ambition, portrayed by Lesley Sharp; before beginning a doomed sexual liaison with her flatmate, the self-hating Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). It is not an easy film to watch due to the flagrant and offensive misogyny exhibited by the male characters and the seeming lack of hope throughout. Yet, it remains a compelling portrait of pre-millennial nihilism with some epic monologues delivered by the rasping and mercurial voice of David Thewlis’ in a memorable and incendiary acting performance.
Secrets and Lies (1996)
After the nihilistic dissonance of Naked (1993) Leigh’s next film would return to familial roots and gentler, if still emotionally resonating, domestic drama. The story centres on Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s optometrist attempting to locate the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. In an extremely tender and serene performance, Baptiste as Hortense Cumberbatch finds her search turn up unexpected results. Brenda Blethyn, in the more melodramatic role of Cynthia Purley runs the gamut of emotions, while the imperious Timothy Spall steals the floor with his noble rendition of Cynthia’s brother, Maurice; an ordinary man trying to hold the disparate family strands together. Secret and Lies (1996) was, to date, Mike Leigh’s most accessible and emotionally satisfying film and would deservedly garner acting and directing awards and nominations from the Academy, BAFTA and Cannes.
Vera Drake (2004)
Having presented the lively Topsy Turvy (1999) world of Gilbert and Sullivan a few years before, Leigh went back to a period piece with Vera Drake. Set in 1950s London it centers on Imelda Staunton’s kind housewife who harbours a secret. Amidst her family and work life Vera assists young women who accidentally get in the “family way”. This is a gut-wrenching and tragic story which highlights the issues of the day with stunning emotional power. Imelda Staunton is one of the best actors I have ever witnessed on stage and screen and she brings to Vera’s character sympathy, pride and passionate inner strength that what she is doing is only trying to help. The supporting cast of Philip Davis, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, and Sally Hawkins are superb; and a special mention to cinematographer Dick Pope, who has lit most of Leigh’s films. Pope creates, within a palette of greys, greens and browns a salient mood which enhances the performances and Leigh’s masterful direction.
Sally Hawkins character work and acting as Poppy Cross is a joy. Her character is very natural, optimistic and care-free. She enjoys her job as a primary school teacher and drifts through life happily. Hawkins imbues Poppy with a light comedic touch and her timing of a look, little giggle and innocence gags just make you feel better about life. If everyone was like Poppy the world would be a far better place. Leigh’s direction is not without an element of darkness, mainly via Eddie Marsan’s awkward conspiracy-theorist-bigot driving instructor. However, Poppy’s strength and positivity wins through ultimately in one of Leigh’s most breezy works.
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