Loving and Loathing Mike Leigh
Another year, another Mike Leigh movie… though to be fair, it’s actually every other year. Still, we know what to expect: social satire larded with maudlin sentiment; all or nothing performances from his favourite cosmetically unenhanced English thespians; not much plot but characters who rub each other up the wrong way, grin and bear it in the conventional English manner until they are forced to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth in the last reel.
Okay, I admit it – I have a problem with Mike Leigh, and maybe it’s just me, because the man seems to be a national institution these days. It’s not that I dislike everything he does by any means, but the good and bad usually go hand in hand, and it’s all inextricably linked to his famous “process”: the way that he develops his films by putting his actors “in character” before going off to write the screenplay.
The process has its uses. His films are deeply rooted in the national psyche, they shine a light on a “little England” of suburban pretension, misery and optimism that is otherwise mostly absent from our cinema screens. And he has co-created characters and performances that stick with you, sometimes years and decades later.
Top of the list, for me, would be David Thewlis as the brilliant, deeply damaged Johnny in Naked (1993), Leigh’s angriest and darkest film, and a movie, I suspect, that owes at least as much to Thewlis’s sensibility as to Leigh’s.
Who else? Brenda Blethyn as one of his noisily desperate women in Secrets & Lies… Imelda Staunton’s simple-hearted abortionist Vera Drake… Sally Hawkins’ relentlessly upbeat teacher in Happy Go Lucky… Alison Steadman’s monstrous middle-class hostess in Abigail’s Party…
Still, it seems to me that some of these characters I would sooner forget: Eddie Marsan’s bilious driving instructor In Happy Go Lucky is another example of an actor being allowed to steamroll through the picture. Leigh encourages his actors to work from the outside in – accumulating nervous tics, funny accents and social dysfunctions as if the role was a type, not a person, and the actor an anthropologist exploring native behaviour in the lower reaches of the Thames.
Leigh defends the exaggeration by invoking the comic tradition, even (in a recent Guardian interview) vaudeville, pantomime and circus… which would sit easier with me if I found the films funnier, and not so in thrall to class snobbery (and its middle-class twin: reverse snobbery).
But maybe I’m wrong. I’ve loved and loathed his films ever since seeing Abigail’s Party (a repeat) on TV in the early 1980s, and I’m still fighting the mixed emotions that BBC play inspired in me at the time. Perhaps it’s my own class hatred that makes these satires so alienating? Or perhaps I’m the sentimentalist, and his vision is just too acerbic for my stomach? It’s not every filmmaker who can inspire such self-doubt, I’ll gladly give Leigh credit for that.
Titles related to this article