Mike Leigh, super-realist

1 Mike LeighLike a lot of folk I enjoy people watching. I’ve met hundreds, as you do, and noticed the extremists: schizos who condescend then seem to lose all self confidence;  manic-deps who go from elation to depression; anal types who can’t cope with their routines being broken. I’m a self protective type, all cheer and full of interest in others to avoid having to talk about myself (not that anyone would have time to listen). So I enjoy films where the makers strip the social camouflage off their characters and reveal the chrysalis beneath. One of these film makers is Mike Leigh. This is what I found of his films.

Mike Leigh is a British playwright and film director, a major figure both in modern British drama and in the history of cinema. He began writing plays in the mid 1960s, and directing films from 1970, and has been working since, with over 20 plays and 20 films to his credit. He’s best known for work like the films Naked (1993) and Secrets and Lies (1996).

His work has shown a development from spiky social commentary towards deeply felt melodrama, perhaps reflecting the influence of the cinematic format on his point of view. I find most of his films strangely absorbing, sometimes horrifying, but all fascinating explorations of how people feel and behave, and of the pressures they endure.

Leigh wants to explore what people are, and contrast this with how they appear to each other, a conditioning determined at least in part by their social class. So the development of plot in his work is secondary to the observation of his characters’ facades crumbling.

Not a single film of Leigh’s I’ve seen has less than superb acting. His films can be enjoyed in fact for the pleasure of watching great actors at work, even if you aren’t interested in Leigh’s viewpoints. If you love good acting, watch a Mike Leigh film.

“Written” by Mike Leigh doesn’t do justice to his way of creating a work. He devises a plot with sharply observed characters, casts for it, then discusses in depth each character’s personality with his actors. He encourages the actors to develop the character from their own knowledge of human nature, but only discusses the plot minimally with the actors till rehearsals begin. Then he merely ‘blocks’ the action. The development that occurs is thus partly spontaneous. What is revealed is Leigh’s insights into human nature deepened with the experience of each actor. Whether his medium is film or stage play, Leigh often achieves a blend of the two media, a kind of super-realism, where pop art meets Godot.

2 Bleak MomentsSylvia and Peter in Bleak Moments, measuring out their lives in coffee spoons


Bleak Moments is a film version of an earlier Leigh stage play and was made in 1971, Leigh’s first feature film. As elsewhere, the play structure helps him focus on what he wants to say, more so than in later works made as film, where often there are cinematic developments not as tightly integrated as they might be.

They say that connoisseurs who love green tea prefer it as close to hot water as they can get, so that the flavour of the tea is emphasised. This film is like green tea over rice, an Ozu title: Ozu is an appropriate memory for early Mike Leigh films.  In a medium ostensibly of movement and action, Leigh has here crafted a work of stillness and silence, where every expression, lack of movement and unfinished sentence has meaning. You have to be prepared to watch this. A truly great film, one of the select few.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

…And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

(Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock)

The film stars Anne Raitt as Sylvia, isolated in her London home by the care for her handicapped sister Hilda, memorably played by Sarah Stephenson. The film tells the story of her bumbling attempt at seducing a shy teacher she often meets on the walk to work, Peter, played by Eric Allan. She works with a typist, Pat (Joolia Cappleman) who is caring for her elderly bed ridden mother (Liz Smith) and is as isolated as Sylvia. While this encounter between Peter and Sylvia is going on, a nondescript wanderer with a guitar, Norman, played engagingly by Mike Bradwell, captivates both Sylvia and Hilda, but too soon moves on. The film builds to its centrepiece, an excruciatingly awkward dinner date between Sylvia and Peter, and her attempt at seduction afterwards. This is so slow, so awkward, so hesitant, so filled with nervous fear, and often horrifyingly silent, it makes your blood curdle. It’s also one of the greatest jobs of acting I’ve ever seen on film.

The characters’ behaviour seems so real, but it’s as well to realise from the start this is not realism: it’s super-realism. Like the art movement photo-realism, which is more real than a photo, but remains a painting. The details shown in the film don’t depict real life, they comment on it. Every half finished phrase has been crafted to reveal something about each character. Sylvia’s hesitant sense of humour shows her love of life, so fatally repressed. Peter’s fumbling about his feelings contrasts with his slightly more confident exposition of cultural and intellectual matters. During the episode which ends with the failed seduction, Peter meets the guitarist Norman, and confronts him with a pile of books like a weapon. These are all people who can’t interact socially because they are too self obsessed. Only the abused wanderer Norman has the answer, a focus outside the self, in his case music, which opens doors the characters can’t open themselves

Like Ray’s Charulata, it’s the characters’ play of expression that informs you, not the mangled dialog. Like a Simenon thriller, it’s the mood and ambience of the piece that tells the story, not the plot. I think the film succeeds even more than the play might have, because of the resource of close up photography. This work of genius seems a once off for Leigh, as perhaps it must be. To watch it you need to get rid of film stereotypes. No American hysteria posing as drama, no kitchen sink English realism. Perhaps a glimpse of what silent film might have meant to its original audience. But none of these. Bleak Moments is something unique in cinema.

3 Abigails partyThe happy families in Abigail’s Party: and a great set designer at work


Abigail’s Party is a 1977 play performed in versions for both stage and television. It stars Alison Steadman, Tim Stern, Janine Duvitski, and John Salthouse, in the roles of Beverly, Laurence, Angela and Tony, for both stage and TV; and, on stage, Thelma Whitely, on television, Harriet Reynolds in the role of Susan. I watched the film version.

The play is ultimately about social roles, why they’re formed, how they’re changed and what is revealed when they are. Like all Leigh’s work the entire emphasis is on character and, to a certain extent on class.

Abigail is not a character. Her party is the pretense for her neighbour, Beverly, to invite Abigail’s mother Susan (Abigail is 15) to her house for cocktails and company. Beverly also invites new neighbours Angela and Tony. Her husband Laurence is a real estate salesman who agitatedly fits in the party as well as he can with his business affairs.

The full scale of communication is used to delineate these people. Expression, body language, parody and sarcasm, mime, as well as conversation, reveal more of each than they would ever want. Leigh even poststructurally uses the play format to realise his characters. The film morphs continually from a film, becomes a stage play, then a riveting social realism documentary, and back again.

Beverly is a fragile monster very aware of polite social norms and insistent they be followed. This is at odds with her breeding, for it is apparent she is a vulgarian with very bad taste indeed. What’s more important?, says Leigh, before going on to other matters. Her husband Laurence panders to her pretensions, while harbouring his own. But Beverly, with all the instincts of a social tyrant, is a responsive woman who genuinely loves her home and husband. This just makes her spectacularly unaware of what is going on with her guests, and she blunders all over them.

Susan is divorced, lonely and resentful, a single parent, and full of repressed anger that manifests itself as anxiety over what might be going on at her daughter’s party next door. The traditional host and guest battle rages between Susan and Beverly as to whether Susan will eat the snacks provided, have or not have a drink and a cigarette. Beverly prises Susan’s story from her and treads insensitively on her feelings, augments her anxiety about her daughter, and generally makes life unbearable for the repressed Susan, who eventually explodes and screams at her.

Angela is a dim, tactless woman who follows Beverly’s lead in all things, steps on her husband’s toes unintentionally, idiotically repeats herself, and irritates Tony to the point where he yells at her, and she flinches. She has a habit of stating the obvious, in her anxiety to make conversation, and gets progressively more tactless as she smokes and drinks too much at Beverly’s insistence. But she’s good hearted, and in her way loveable, and the only one with any ability to deal with the crisis that ends Beverly’s gathering.

The two men, husbands Laurence and Tony, are both repressed characters, not at home at all in Beverly’s polite little group. Both are irritated with their wives’ behaviour and try to conceal it for as long as possible. This has disastrous results for Laurence. He too is a vulgarian, but with cultured taste. He wants to impress, and fittingly is in the “impress” business (a salesman). Tony on the other hand is taciturn, a ‘bloke’ who used to play football, likes a light ale, yells at his wife when she gets too irritating, flirts with Beverly, and keeps it all under the hatch. Are men more repressed than women? asks Leigh.

The actors reveal much more than this outline about their characters. But the film is not a psychologist’s couch set of revelations. Leigh crafts the interchange to reveal what happens when lower middle class start the climb to middle middle class. It could only happen with the middle class, and Leigh’s political stance is to ridicule the movement of upward mobility, the dragging about of a set of pretensions to impress the Joneses.

So the film is a tragic comedy. Funny, yet horrifying. Acutely observed, yet critical. Character based, yet socially excoriating (Britain went through some horrifying changes in the 70s). A study of the mix in a marriage of affection and competition that could be divorce therapy for some. The actors are skilled enough to make you feel for their hidden, repressed feelings at the very moment you laugh at their horrible vanities. A masterpiece.

4 High HopesCyril and Shirley in High Hopes: will they change the world as Marx expected?


High Hopes (1988) stars Philip Davis as Cyril, a socialist with a great admiration for Karl Marx, at odds with his long time lover Shirley (played by Ruth Sheen). She wants a child: but he feels it immoral to bring a child into a world where it will be exploited by capitalists. The film is a day in the life of Cyril and his extended family. We meet his mum, played by Edna Doré, his sister Valerie, played by Heather Tobias, his mother’s neighbours the appropriately named Boothe-Braines (Leslie Manville and David Bamber) and his boorish brother in law Martin, played by Philip Jackson.

Like Leigh’s next film, Life is Sweet, High Hopes is based on contrasting a secure, loving, working class relationship with others damaged by the social clime. Cyril and Shirley are a lovely couple, beautifully realised by the actors, shown warts and all yet never for a moment unbelievable. Cyril’s social critique is just, Shirley’s love of children natural. The problems the film has start with the other characters. For some reason Leigh presents them in a cartoonish manner, exaggerated and ludicrous. Only good acting stops one from dismissing the situation of these characters as something from a Disney cartoon. The exception is Edna Doré as Cyril’s mother, who steals every scene she’s in.

The film stops at affirming love as a nourishing value while caricaturing those who are without it. Seems it could have done more with the material. I suppose a dull economic critique of Thatcher’s England wouldn’t have drawn the crowds.

5 Life is sweetAndy’s daughter Nicola in Life is Sweet: her problem is nobody loves her


Life is Sweet was made in 1990 and stars Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks and Timothy Spall as a family of eccentrics, Wendy and Andy and their twin daughters Natalie and Nicola, and their eccentric friend Aubrey.

This is one of the first attempts by Leigh at social melodrama. I think it can be regarded from two perspectives. As a portrait of a slice of London life it succeeds admirably. The characters are all loveable and interesting, the way of life as many Londoners experience it. But the characters don’t develop. The film gives a day in the life exposition of Andy’s family, but everyone starts eccentric and finishes eccentric. Too many quirky individuals, none of them developing, is stereotype.

Secondly, as far as it does develop, the plot is unconvincing. Problem daughter Nicola thinks her parents don’t love her, suffers from bulimia, compulsive and neurotic sexual practices, is vaguely alternatively political and almost terminally depressed. But she has a supportive sister, parents who are loveable and who show her love, and just why she is in the state she’s in is a bit of a mystery. Just as arbitrarily she accepts her parents’ love and seems to mend slightly as the film ends, but it is not at all convincing.

The soundtrack was a problem to me, as all the actors spoke quickly and the accents were thick, and I failed to understand half the dialog.

As a light comedy about a group of eccentrics it succeeds, a bit like a rival to Steptoe and Son. But as character exploration or social critique it is negligible. Beautifully acted, the film asks questions you’d rather dodge, but it’s still flawed in its exposition. It is apparently one of Leigh’s more popular films.

6 Secrets and LiesHortense and Cynthia meet each other in Secrets and Lies: the truth will out


Secrets and Lies is a 1996 film starring Timothy Spall as Maurice, a prosperous London photographer, Phyllis Logan as his wife Monica, Brenda Blethyn as his sister Cynthia, and Claire Rushbrook and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Cynthia’s two daughters Roxanne and Hortense. Alison Steadman, and Ruth Sheen and Philip Davis from High Hopes also put in an appearance.

As the film develops we learn the background of these characters. Hortense has been an adopted child and wants to trace her birth mother. Cynthia has been a neglected child and given birth to two illegitimate daughters in a life of promiscuity and a search for love, while caring for her younger brother Maurice, replacing the mother they both never had. Both Maurice and Cynthia have secrets, the concealing of which has damaged their lives. In the course of the film the truth comes out about both these secrets, and the lies they have engendered, and the shame both feel is seen to have been unnecessary.

A major part of the film is the soundtrack music. Beautiful, but intrusive, it attracts too much attention; there are many scenes that would have been much more effective without it. The fact that it was played at too high a volume didn’t help, sometimes drowning the dialog.

…if you had your eyes, you might fail of

the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his

own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of

your son: give me your blessing: truth will come

to light…

(Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice)

The revelation that it is best to be emotionally honest, for one’s own sake as well as others’, is not an earth shaking one. To see what’s there, to face the truth (two main characters are an optometrist and a photographer) is the place to start. So much, so given. The film succeeds by the sincerity of its acting, especially that of Brenda Blethyn, depicting an emotionally devastated woman who has lost everything: parents, lovers, the love (she thinks) of her daughter and brother, but survives, and finds that the love she has lost has been there all the time, but suppressed by shame and social cachet. Great acting from Blethyn that realises Cynthia’s whole life in every scene she is in.

Leigh has moved beyond satire and social commentary in this film. He is here a moralist, and what he says is the truth.


These five films give a picture of London working class life in places like Holborn, Broadgate and Liverpool station, and Norwood, depicted by a group of people able to employ a vast amount of detailed observation and experience, so that the characters portrayed become universal as well as exactly moulded to their place and time. Mediating this achievement is Mike Leigh, a man with a remarkable ability to interpret the camera for his actors, so that the character becomes the plot of each film he has made.

We each of us follow a mythic plot as we live our lives, and this is the subject Leigh explores. The real world in this perspective is the superficial world, upon which we impose our hopes, feared, obsessions, and are sometimes surprised with the results.

Leigh began with a social objective, a bias for working class honesty and family values compared to lower middle class pretension. He found that pretension both funny and obnoxious, and pilloried it unmercifully. It could be his scrutiny of both classes led to a realisation that we all, no matter what our origins, take refuge in deceit and dishonesty. These are the typical human behaviours, loyalty and love come a poor second.

You can learn a lot about people from watching Leigh’s films. Perhaps generously, they are the achievement of Leigh’s actors. Could these have been as great as performers without Mike Leigh?

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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