A couple of decades ago, I saw an odd little movie entitled “High Hopes.” It was about an urban-living, unmarried couple of working class Britishers, and addressed themes of their relationship with each other, with his aging mother, as well as the bizarre tension between them and the man’s sister who, with her middle-class husband, live in the suburbs (think the Dursleys, if you’re Harry Potter fans). The themes of social class, of personal struggle, of the inevitability of change, and of what really matters in life (despite what society may say otherwise) grabbed me, and despite its never being a blockbuster, the characters and themes have stuck with me ever since.
I’ve been delighted since then to see much more of director Mike Leigh’s work. Gilbert and Sullivan fans were enchanted (or repelled, perhaps) by the director’s “Topsy Turvy” of 1999, delving into the backstage politics, personal trials of the actors, management crises, and lives of the composer and librettist in creating “The Mikado.” But most of Leigh’s work seems to focus on smaller-scale dramas, such as what happens when an adopted young Black woman goes in search of her birth mother (“Secrets and Lies”), or when a loving, hard-working wife and mother in post-World War II London runs afoul of the law for “helping girls” (i.e. performing illegal abortions in “Vera Drake”). Some of his movies (many of which, particularly in his earlier days, were shot specially for television) can be manic and difficult to watch (“Nuts in May” and “Abigail’s Party” in particular come to mind), but I loved the contrast between the poor, working class couple who manage, despite many setbacks, to find happiness, living next door to the professional couple who have everything they need, but remain irritable, unfulfilled, and discontented in “Grown-Ups.”
Leigh’s dramas are not dazzling or romantic. As both writer and director, he turns his lens on couples with private pain such as infertility, sick children, financial struggle, and shows how despite their problems, they can find a measure of happiness in one another. He has little use for the bourgeoisie, whom he portrays as vain, self-absorbed, and often cruel. Their pain is sometimes no less than that of the protagonists, but the viewer’s sympathy (and Leigh’s) is rarely with them.
The director’s unique way of working—shooting scenes out of order, not rehearsing the entire script before filming, and only giving the script to the actors scene by scene as they film—is odd, and perhaps to some actors, disconcerting, but results in a high degree of spontaneity and quality. His acting regulars—Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall, Alan Corduner, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Phil Davis, and Ruth Sheen—are not major stars, and not one of them has made People Magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People. But ranging in looks from pleasant to plain, they make his stories appear all the more realistic.
Despite his most recent film’s title (“Happy Go Lucky”), Leigh’s films are not comedies. (This one was inexplicably billed as one, but the Cap’n and I can attest that it is not.) There are comic moments, but there is also a grittiness to them and while one only occasionally feels uplifted at the end, there is always a resolution of the crisis and potential for the characters to return to a degree of normalcy, a little dinged up but wiser for it.
I’m sure Mike Leigh’s movies are not for everyone. But for those who appreciate dramas with a raw edge to them, actors who look like real human beings, and resolutions that are subtle, they are well worth watching.