Category Archives: Mike Leigh

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

“Are you happy?

As a fan of Mike Leigh films, I watched Happy-Go-Lucky not sure exactly what to expect. I’d caught a few previews that showed a young, giddy teacher on the loose in a classroom, and I hoped the film wasn’t about one of those idealistic teachers who pulls a promising, but horrible damaged student from failure. I really hate those sorts of films.

Anyway, I should have had more faith in Mike Leigh. While I’m not exactly sure what the filmmaker wanted his audience to take away from the film, Leigh certainly didn’t make a trite clichéd film, and Happy-Go-Lucky is, instead, a unique character study.

When the film begins, 30-year-old teacher colourful, bubbly, quirky Poppy (Sally Hawkins) rides her bike to a bookshop and goes inside. Poppy tries to engage the morose shop assistant (Elliott Cowan) into idle, friendly chatter, and in spite of the fact that she throws herself into her goal of breaking the ice, the bookshop worker delivers only hard stares. He doesn’t want to be friendly and he isn’t even going to be polite.

By the end of the first scene, I knew that Poppy was someone I would inherently dislike. She’s annoying but more than that, she’s downright pushy, and she’s like this throughout the whole film. While Poppy argues that her demeanor is an attempt to be happy and to share happiness, I’d argue against that and say that Poppy doesn’t respect people’s boundaries. And this is particularly obvious in situations where Poppy pushes the limits with men–in the bookshop, for example, and with her driving instructor Scott. In both of these situations the men are trapped physically in their environments (the shop and the car) and cannot escape. With other people, Poppy’s pushiness is a bit subtler. There’s one scene when Poppy’s roommate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) is reading and Poppy interrupts her–even though Zoe sends out busy signals. There’s a moment when Zoe silently seems to make the decision to put her book aside (in spite of the fact she was enjoying it) and listen to Poppy.

Poppy’s effervescent personality may be a hit with Tim (Samuel Roukin) the social worker she chats up at school, but she seems to grate on her new driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Poppy gets under the skin of this sexually repressed racist, closet loon, and even though that is her intention in the first place, she seems genuinely stunned when he responds in an unpredictable fashion. The scenes between these two were simply hilarious as Poppy gets Scott’s goat and deliberately goads him. I can buy the idea that Poppy puts on a happy face for work; we all do that to a certain extent when dealing with the public, but in Poppy’s case it never ends, and in the relationship with her driving instructor, she seems to want him to blow a fuse and go postal.

One review I read mentioned that a negative reaction to Poppy’s personality says a great deal about that person, but I think that’s codswallop. While Poppy has a lot of positive traits in her constant quest to learn and enjoy life in the process, she is no respecter of other people’s boundaries and it doesn’t seem to occur to her that some people may be ill, grieving, distracted or perhaps have topics they don’t wish to discuss. We’ve all heard the term passive-aggressive, well I think Poppy is ecstatic-aggressive. She gets her way by being like a rowdy dog who’s just too happy to restrain herself from jumping up on the owner and knocking him down. I found Poppy to be a terribly annoying, clueless and irritating character–someone who insists on shoving her world vision onto everyone she meets–whether they want it or not. It’s probably a great thing that she meets the social worker–a man who literally speaks her language.

In spite of the fact I was ready to strangle Poppy fairly early on in the film, Happy-Go-Lucky was clever, marvelously entertaining and highly recommended for fans of Mike Leigh or lovers of character-driven films in general.

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Grown-Ups (1980)

“We’re back to normal now, aren’t we?”

Grown Ups is an early Mike Leigh made-for-television film. Director Leigh has a special talent for creating British working class characters, and in this film the subjects are Mandy (Lesley Manville) and Dick (Philip Davis), a young newlywed couple. Mandy and Dick move into their new home–a tatty council house–and the move is an ‘arrival’ in more ways than one. Now that they have a council house, Mandy feels that they are ready to start a family, but Dick doesn’t want to take that step yet. Their tatty council house is right next door to the perfectly maintained private home of a former teacher, Mr. Butcher and his wife, fellow teacher Christine. It’s a unpleasant shock for Mr. Butcher to have his former pupils living right next door, and he’d rather have nothing at all to do with the new neighbours.

Grown Ups is a portrait of two marriages, and neither couple is destined for much happiness. Dick is sullen, resentful, and unpleasant. He clings to old-fashioned notions rather desperately, and he would be a pitiful character if he weren’t so utterly unappealing. Mandy’s annoying sister, Gloria, won’t leave the couple alone. She finds every excuse to pester Dick and Mandy and is constantly ‘dropping in’. The Butchers’ marriage isn’t much happier. Mr. Butcher has some rather annoying habits, and it takes the patience of a saint to suffer through every day life with him. Christine, apparently, does have that much patience. She’s long-suffering, undemanding, and self-contained, and all those qualities result in her being ignored at times and taken for granted at others. But at least Mr. Butcher’s self-righteous pomposity is more benign than Dick’s brutal and crude approaches to domestic tranquility.

All of the performances are perfect. Brenda Blethyn, who plays Mandy’s loony spinster sister, Gloria, is a wonderful comedienne. In Grown Ups, she’s neurotic, deranged, and needy. Some of her screechy speeches tend to grate after a while, and one longs to eject Gloria oneself … permanently. As with other Mike Leigh films, the characters are not pleasant, and they are sometimes painful to watch. While touted as a comedy film, the style of humor is uniquely Mike Leigh’s, and that means it’s black, bleak, pessimistic humor. If you are a fan of Mike Leigh films, then I would recommend Grown-Ups. Non-British viewers may find some of the accents difficult to understand, and they may also bored by the film as it emphasizes and skewers British class differences.

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Vera Drake (2004)

The two lives of Vera Drake

No other filmmaker captures the essence of the British working class with quite the skill and attention to detail as Mike Leigh. Vera Drake is a change of pace for Leigh. The film is set in 1950s England and centres around a charwoman who scrubs and cleans the houses of the wealthy. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is described by various people as an ‘angel’ and ‘worth her weight in gold.’ The first few scenes show Vera going about her typical day. Relentlessly cheerful, she cleans, she cooks, she runs errands, and she even finds time and energy to invite a hapless young man over for dinner. One has the impression that Vera Drake is a Mother Theresa type–devoted, selfless and uncomplaining.

There is however, another, secret side to Vera Drake. She performs abortions or as she calls it, “helps girls out.” The only person who knows about Vera’s secret activities is her unpleasant friend, Lily (Ruth Sheen). The film juxtaposes the scenes of a wealthy girl obtaining an abortion with working class women opting to obtain an illegal alternative performed by Vera. The film doesn’t take any cheap shots at the wealthy girl’s situation–she is just as humiliated by the experience as the poor women. Vera genuinely believes she is performing a ‘service’ for women who don’t have the means to get legal abortions. Inevitably, one abortion Vera performs goes wrong, and the police arrive at Vera’s home and take her off for questioning.

With the film Vera Drake director Mike Leigh illustrates his immense talent in recreating a past age. His attention to detail is staggering. However, the character of Vera Drake is problematic–she’s a Stepford wife. She’s never tired, never grumbles, never falters. Is this woman a machine or an unrealistic character? It’s acceptable to think of a woman such as Vera leading this dual life, accepting the illegality of her actions with an ‘end justifies the means’ argument, but nonetheless Vera would be a more complex character than portrayed here. Vera spends the first half of the film as a sweet, almost lobotomized cleaner/abortionist, and then she spends the next half of the film crying her eyes out. For me, at least, the film was spoilt (incredible performance taken into consideration) by the simplistic portrayal of Vera.

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Naked (1993)

“I don’t have a future.”

In the highly entertaining, darkly sardonic film, Naked Johnny (David Thewlis) a belligerent, opinionated drifter rapes a girl, steals a car and leaves Manchester. He arrives in London and visits ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). Louise, who somehow managed to survive several years in a relationship with Johnny, is not exactly happy to see him, and we can understand why. Johnny is obviously bad news. He’s scruffy, unemployed, anti-social and hideously sarcastic. On the plus side, Johnny is extremely intelligent and obviously well educated. The intrepid, unflappable Louise is unmoved by Johnny’s sudden appearance, and this is just as well as Johnny doesn’t spare Louise’s feelings when he openly paws her heavily chemically-dependant roommate, Goth girl Sophie (the late Katrin Cartlidge in a spectacular performance).

The film revolves around the connections Johnny makes with a series of equally lost and lonely souls. As he wanders around London, he penetrates the lives of several strangers–hollow people who are left disturbed when Johnny strips away the illusions of their lives. Life bores Johnny, but he is also attracted by novelty and genuinely curious about the strangers he meets. He very quickly satiates this curiosity, becomes bored again, and moves on to the next subject. Johnny has developed a philosophy of life that includes the idea that humankind is heading into the apocalypse. To Johnny, life is absurd, everything is meaningless, and he asks “what if god put us here for his own entertainment?” Johnny’s perception that life is futile and meaningless is reinforced by the drone-like existence of the people he meets. Johnny’s intelligent, nasty diatribes largely sail over the heads of the dullards he rails at, but his dark wit is quick and sharp enough to demand all of our attention.

While Louise’s roommate, Sophie holds Johnny’s carnal interest briefly, it’s a chance meeting with Brian (Peter Wight), a lonely security guard that remains one of the most intriguing sections of the film. Brian’s meaningless job is to guard an empty building, but he insists that “it’s not a boring job, and I’m not boring either.” Johnny reveals his philosophy of religion and the non-meaning of life to Brian, and Brian, frustrated by Johnny’s nihilistic worldview, reveals his own theories about time. Johnny believes that the end of the world will occur in 1999, has incredible interpretations of several biblical passages, and predicts that humans will soon have barcodes implanted in their hands.

Johnny isn’t a pleasant character. He travels in a bleak intellectual wasteland–a moral wilderness, and in a world devoid of meaning, Johnny is a wandering nihilistic prophet preaching to those lobotomized by the total triviality of their mundane existence. Johnny, however, isn’t the worst character in the film–there’s Sebastian (Greg Cruttwell), an upper class twit with a taste for working girls. He impresses them with his flashy sports car and his credit cards, but then abuses them brutally. No other British director can compete with Mike Leigh when it comes to portraying the British working classes, and in Naked, Leigh is at his best. David Thewlis delivers an incredible performance as Johnny the ultimate anti-hero–part prophet, part product and total reject. Naked isn’t a film for everyone–it’s bleak, dark, and raw, and there are several scenes involving brutal sexuality. I tried to watch this film about a decade ago, and gave up. I’m glad I gave Naked a second look.

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Nuts in May (1976)

“Honestly, Keith, if this keeps on, it’s going to ruin my holiday.”

Nuts in May originally aired in 1976 in the critically acclaimed BBC Play for Today series. In the film, director Mike Leigh skewers the British class system once again in this subtle, humorous tale of a middle class couple who are forced, by circumstance, to rub elbows with members of the working class.

Middle class married couple Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman) head off to the wilds of Dorset for a peaceful 10 days holiday. Insufferable, bossy social worker Keith takes his banjo to sing a few ditties with his drippy, gormless wife. They transport their values along with their camping gear, and set up their tent in a small campground. Things begin to go wrong when PE trainee teacher Ray (Anthony O’Donnell)–who has solid working class roots–dares to play his transistor radio a fraction too loudly for the obnoxious Kevin’s taste.

But the trouble really begins when a working class couple from Birmingham–Honky (Sheila Kelley) and Finger (Stephen Bill) arrive on a motorcycle, and they don’t share Ray’s compunction with politeness issues. It’s very easy for them to simply tell Kevin to get stuffed when he goes to them with complaints, and their presence in the campsite threatens not only Keith’s piece of mind, but also his self-image and his cherished illusion of superiority.

Nuts in May is entertaining fare, but the banality of Keith and Candice-Marie’s conversation requires some intestinal fortitude. Keith–who has an opinion on everything–including the number of chews necessary for proper digestion–is so unlikable, his comeuppance can’t come soon enough. The film’s conclusion, however, is perfectly understated, and the final scene offers a hollow, yet fitting denouement for Keith’s arrogant self-righteousness.

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Who’s Who (1978)

“You’re talking about royalty.”

Fans of British director Mike Leigh will appreciate the film Who’s Who–originally aired in the critically acclaimed BBC television series Play For Today in the 1970s. Who’s Who skewers the class system by taking glimpses into the lives of the characters who work in the offices of a London stock brokerage firm. Here the upper class characters rub shoulders reluctantly with their middle class counterparts under only the most stringent of circumstances.

The film follows three plot strands–upper crust Giles (Adam Norton), along with uptight flat mate Nigel (Simon Chandler) host a dinner party for some obnoxious friends–slimy Anthony (Graham Seed), the preposterous, preening Samantha (Catherine Hall) and the mousy Caroline (Samantha Dean). The stuffy evening is an unqualified failure for those who attend, but it’s great entertainment to watch the upper classes at play. There’s Samantha–who considers herself a wild, daring punk rocker–and only those in her own class would countenance this ludicrous description with a straight face. Then there’s Caroline who’s much more traditional and just as uninteresting. On the male side of things, Giles is in the beginning stages of florid despotism while Nigel is very traditional, and disapproving. These pretentious upper class twits agonize over place settings, decorum, seating arrangements, and holidays in Switzerland.

In another strand of the plot, a senior partner of the brokerage firm is called into to help the financial dilemma of Lord and Lady Crouchurst. The Crouchursts compare social calendars and drool over their polo dates with various members of the aristocracy before discussing such boring topics as the necessity of making ‘economies’ in the budget.

The funniest parts of Who’s Who concern the royalty-obsessed middle-class Alan (Richard Kane) who collects the autographs of the rich and famous–and proudly displays a wall of rejection slips from various royals. To Alan, criticism of the royals, or any member of the upper classes is tantamount to blasphemy. His toadying, sycophantic behaviour whenever he’s around the upper classes is incredibly funny, and his obsession is set off when an upper class woman arrives at his home to purchase a Chinchilla cat from his dotty cat breeder wife, April (Joolia Cappleman). Poor Alan worships the upper classes without a clue that those he apes despise his pretensions. While not quite following a traditional film format, Who’s Who is instead various slices of life designed to skewer the British class system, and the film does this quite brilliantly–depicting the foibles of the classes pitilessly and with great dollops of good humour. With Who’s Who director Mike Leigh shows yet again that no other British director can bash the British class system with the same merciless, humourous and naked accuracy.

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