Last year, at the National Theatre, Mike Leigh devised and directed a new play, Grief [review here], a slow-burning work of exquisite stillness and quiet that developed gradually into something extraordinarily intense; watching the production felt like being placed, ever so gently, into a vice, and a full ten months on, I’m still haunted by it. Leigh’s fragrant new short film, A Running Jump, finds him moving in the opposite direction, trading Grief’s slow, sad beauty for full-tilt jauntiness and joviality. One of four films especially commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad - the others are by Asif Kapadia, Lynne Ramsay and Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini - the canny, candy-coloured A Running Jump transforms London - or at least the East End corner of it occupied by Perry (Eddie Marsan), his wife Debbie (Samantha Spiro), his pa (Sam Kelly) and two daughters (Danielle and Nichole Bird) - into a sports-ground of sorts, replete with characters who become runners, joggers and jumpers as they go about their daily business in the city.
Needless to say, A Running Jump doesn’t have the richness of texture of Leigh’s finest work. But if its short scenes - structured as snapshots - never quite add up to a portrait, the sketch that they do develop is very satisfying. Though Leigh hasn’t made many short films in his career (1988's The Short & Curlies being the most notable) I think it’s a form that suits him. At their least successful, the slightly heightened, broad strokes that constitute the Leigh brand of realism can grate; his approach to characterisation can lead you, at times, to feel that you’ve had enough of his protagonists. Here, by contrast, you’re left wanting more of them. (And there’s no time for finger-pointing admonishments, either.) The cast - made up more of Leigh newbies than regulars - sketch vivid creations, from Marsan’s motor-mouth car-dealer, his entire discourse a variant on patter (“You got a girlfriend? You soon will have in a car like this!”), to Spiro’s Debbie who channels both Alison Steadman’s Wendy in Life is Sweet (1990) and Karina Fernandez’s flamenco teacher in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) as she instructs her exercise class in her first scene: “C’mon, I wanna smell that juice!”
Edited to the rhythm of the characters’ movements (when Perry gets a brief moment of easeful repose he’s rewarded with one of the film’s rare close-ups), A Running Jump is so marvellously brisk it’s practically Leigh’s first action movie. But the film also finds time to incorporate that Leigh staple: namely, an encounter between two characters with wildly different concerns and modes of expression. Here that encounter is between Sam Kelly as Perry's sports-fixated Dad and Lee Ingleby’s Gary, who comes to buy a car from Perry, and can’t resist sharing his Mayan-calendar-schooled theories about the End of Days. (Ingleby, it must be said, is every inch a perfect new recruit to Leighland.)
There are some infelicities - Gary Yershon’s score, as insistently employed as it was in Another Year, is the major one - but Leigh has produced a lovely little piece of work here, one that’s fluid, funny and crowned by the intermingled irony and beauty of its superb final shot. A Running Jump is, unsurprisingly, no retrograde Chariots of Fire-esque triumph-fest; rather, it simply shows sport as part of the texture of everyday London life. The movie’s emblem isn’t the Union Jack at all, but rather the pink shirt worn by Perry as he dashes through the busy streets, juggling mobiles, endlessly cajoling, on the make.
A Running Jump screens tomorrow on BBC 2 at 23.20.