Friday 30 September 2011

5 Filmmakers (v): Mike Leigh

Three key films: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996), Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Underrated filmAll or Nothing (2002). A contemporary drama released between Leigh’s two stunning “period” films Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), All Or Nothing slipped through the net; indeed, the movie has been described by Leigh and Lesley Manville as “the one that got away.” Dismissed by some British critics as grim and interminable, this raw ensemble drama about the fortunes of three families on a South London council estate is in fact a rewarding, involving and, finally, quietly affirmative piece of work: “I feel that this film is entirely about redemption,” Leigh has said. With superb performances from Manville, Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, James Corden, and, in her first role for Leigh, Sally Hawkins, All or Nothing combines Ozu-like intimacy with an oddly epic scope; it’s ripe for rediscovery.

Unforgettable moment: The meeting between Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in the diner in Secrets and Lies, shot in one brilliantly sustained long take, encapsulates the film’s brand of humour and heartbreak, as Cynthia moves from denial and amnesia to the recognition that the young woman sitting beside her is in fact the daughter that she gave up for adoption years before.

The Legend (1943-)

“Directly, objectively, yet compassionately [Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs] puts on the screen the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day and from year to year, the experience of ordinary people …” Mike Leigh’s praise for Olmi’s film stands as a very apt description of Leigh’s own work, which has, from the very beginning, concerned itself with “the experience of ordinary people”: working, raising families, dealing with loss and illness, trying to communicate and connect. Howie Movshovitz defines Leigh’s output as a sustained attempt to “capture the texture of real life” and terms such as “social realism,” “kitchen-sink drama” and “naturalism” invariably appear in discussions of the British auteur’s work. However, none of these terms seems quite adequate in capturing the very distinctive brand of humane insight and uproarious social comedy that characterises Leigh’s film-making. As the director states, “no work of art is truly naturalistic. Art is not real life and has to be organised, designed and distilled because it’s dramatic.”

Leigh’s very particular process of “organising, designing and distilling” his material remains one of the most original and commented upon in contemporary cinema. In recent years, the director has become somewhat more open about discussing elements of his method - even while keeping the more “esoteric” aspects firmly behind closed doors. Famously, Leigh’s projects begin with no script, starting instead from a basic premise that is developed through lengthy improvisation sessions with his actors, who initially base their characters on a person - or various people - that they know. The months of rehearsal result in Leigh’s composition of a bare-bones shooting script, which is refined, distilled, and finalised after more improvisation, by the time shooting commences. The process is organic, finely detailed and highly collaborative; small wonder that many actors (including his unofficial “repertory company” of performers: Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, the late Katrin Cartlidge and, more recently, Martin Savage, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins) have frequently described their work with Leigh as among the most rewarding and fulfilling of their careers.

Leigh’s idiosyncratic methods were initially developed in his work for the theatre, a medium in which he continues to do vital work (cf. his stunning new play Grief). However, it was a viewing of John Cassavetes’ seminal Shadows (1959) that first alerted him to the possibility of “creating complete plays from scratch with a group of actors.” His first film, Bleak Moments , a devastating anatomisation of English reserve and failures in communication, appeared in 1971, but it would be another 17 years before his next feature film, High Hopes was made. In the intervening period, Leigh dedicated himself to working for television, producing a string of memorable dramas for the BBC’s celebrated ‘Play for Today’ strand, including Hard Labour (1973), Nuts in May (1976), The Kiss of Death (1977) and Abigail’s Party (1977). Following High Hopes and Life is Sweet (1990), the turning point in Leigh’s career came with Naked, an epically-scaled and often brutal drama which tracks its garrulous anti-hero, Johnny (David Thewlis), from Manchester to the streets of London, exploring his fairly vicious relationships with women; the film’s confrontational approach was likened by one (hostile) critic to “a mugging.” Naked was followed by the equally extraordinary Secrets and Lies, perhaps the quintessential Leigh film in its subtle, immersive drawing together of a group of extended family members, colleagues and friends. His camerawork characterised by what David Thompson has called a “detached, medical watchfulness” Leigh often bases his scenes around social engagements, with their ensuing dramas, revelations and embarrassments; the climactic, emotionally charged barbecue sequence in Secrets and Lies is, in many ways, the Leigh scene par excellence.

Leigh has broadened his scope to encompass period drama with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), bringing his distinctive aesthetic (and most of his favourite actors) to bear on these projects, which subtly challenge the conventions of heritage cinema. Sometimes prone to caricature and over-emphasis, Leigh’s weaker films can be obvious and schematic, occasionally relying too heavily on broadly-drawn contrasts between characters and taking a rather judgemental attitude towards the protagonists. His best films, in contrast, work to change and challenge the audiences’ pre-judgements about characters, and cast a sharp yet sympathetic eye upon human frailty and resilience. According to Andy Medhurst, the director‘s skill lies in “making moving (in both senses of the word) pictures that evoke the horrors and humours of being English.” For all the national specificity of his work, however, it is, finally, Leigh’s sustained engagement with “the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day” that makes his films resonate so profoundly for audiences across the world.


  1. am enjoying "the directors" series Alex
    keep em coming

  2. Thanks, John. Time permitting, I very well might. ;)

  3. Look forward to reading this article and your review of Melancholia (2011) when I've managed to see Von Triers latest!

    By the way, I blogged about a couple of things you recommended, Gillian Welch + Buffalo 66