Hard Labour (1973)

“Every house is just that little bit different.”

Hard Labour from British director Mike Leigh originally aired in 1973 on BBC’s critically acclaimed Play For Today series. Hard Labour focuses on the emotionally sterile life of the working class long-suffering Mrs. Thornley (Liz Smith). Married to Jim (Clifford Kershaw), a petty-minded night watchman, Mrs. Thornley spends most of her unappreciated life cleaning up after others. In her modest council house, Mrs. T is subjected to constant complaints and belittling comments from her husband. She also works as a cleaning lady for a snobby middle class couple–the Stones. Mrs. T patiently, painstakingly and without a shadow of a complaint scrubs Mrs. Stone’s (Vanessa Harris) house while her employer stuffs her face with chocolates, nags about the silver and complains about Mr. Stone.

Mr. Thornley guards a warehouse full of gigantic plastic ducks, and while it seems highly unlikely that anyone in their right minds would want to steal them, Thornley’s immediate supervisor–a much younger man–takes every opportunity to berate and humiliate Thornley about his performance. Thornley, in turn, abuses his wife in a similar fashion, and the pecking order in life seems thoroughly established. The Thornleys have a contentious daughter (Polly Hemingway) whose role in the family seems to be geared towards baiting her father. Somewhere underneath all this drudgery, nagging, and knee-jerk nastiness Mrs. Thornley has feelings, but they’re buried far from the eyes of her family.

Hard Labour is not my favourite Mike Leigh film, and if you’re new to Leigh, I recommend you start elsewhere (Who’s Who, Grown-Ups or High Hopes). Leigh fans will want to watch this film, but its unappealing characters, and drifting mundane plot (which mirrors Mrs. T’s life) may be difficult for anyone who is not a hard-boiled fan. Ben Kingsley appears in the role of Naseem.


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