Featured: That Special Touch From Mike Leigh
Coming soon is the British historical drama Peterloo, the latest from writer/director Mike Leigh. Leigh’s work features the aesthetic touch to social situations in contemporary Britain and real-life figures from history. Starting with televised plays, he’s built an impressive reputation for creating dynamic characters surrounding a certain narrative through improvisation rather than a normal screenplay. Historical and contemporary, Leigh goes to hit right on the emotional buttons on the vulnerable areas of society. Building up with a record up-and-coming actors who became known veterans like Alison Steadman (who he later married and then divorced), Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Katlin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp, Andy Serkis, and Lesley Manville. Here are my personal 5 favorite films by Mike Leigh.
Set in the middle of a Thatcherist government where the middle class is hit hard, a family in London’s East End struggles with unemployment involving a couple and their two adult sons in punctuated roles by Phil Daniels and Tim Roth. They are bored and struggle with the growing dreariness of not being able to do anything but suffer through the realism that other middle-class citizens dealt with at the time. As seen with the rest of his work, Leigh goes back and forth with the couple, their sons, and other family members who are on the other end of life as well-off and in the suburbs. They are into the known and unknown, but mainly on the dole, unable to get out of a disaffected hole. Look out for Gary Oldman’s debut as a skinhead. After multiple successful television plays, Leigh’s Meantime brought him better prominence in continuing the kitchen sink genre from twenty years before.
David Thewlis played the intelligent, yet narcissistic homeless figure Johnny who tries to outsmart everyone he encounters on a lonely day in London. It is among the darkest pieces by Leigh as it goes into the underbelly of the London night where it is both sexual and violent, if not a mix as seen in the first scene. Johnny is crazy, openly verbally abusing others who try to cross his intelligence, especially women, but others are even worse than him. He keeps friendly with his ex-girlfriend and it’s her friend who becomes the victim of the psychopathic sadist landlord. It was controversial upon release because of the misogynistic tones throughout, especially within a heavily dark comic tone that can come from a Mike Leigh film. In a story of alienation, cynicism, and social hypocrisy, the characters have been stripped down to the true emotions they all bare.
Secrets And Lies (1996)
The Palme d’Or winning film about a secret family history revealed, namely a white woman who gave birth to a black girl and gave it up for adoption, is a very emotional movie about the surprises in life that quickly upend any individual regardless of background. Hortense (Jean-Marianne Baptiste), a well-educated optometrist, decides to search for her birth mother and is stunned to discover it is a white woman, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), who comes from a dysfunctional family which includes her rebellious daughter and her married son who is the calmer of the clan, but is internally frustrated with what the family is turning out to be. Baptiste and Blethyn’s performances move mountains and shatter the foundations of what a family really knows about their lives and peel off the layers of the ordinary persons when meeting such an encounter.
Vera Drake (2004)
Set in the 1950s, the film directly addresses the issue of abortion and the difficulty young middle-class women had with an unwanted pregnancy. The title character is a simple housewife, played perfectly by Imelda Staunton, who is the unsuspecting abortionist that has a routine while looking over his husband and adult children. Based on his own childhood, Leigh transplants a post-war rebuilt London to the screen where the surroundings are grey but the central figures are very warm. That is with the exception of two characters: one by Sally Hawkins as a woman who is impregnated through rape but can get an abortion after stating she may kill herself, and a second woman who survives a botched abortion by Drake, leading up to the dramatic arrest during a dinner party in the family’s flat.
I first noticed Sally Hawkins as the bubbly primary school teacher Poppy who is not affected by anything negative around her and instead always tries to be optimistic. After her bike is stolen, she decides to learn how to drive and comes face-to-face with the gloomy driving instructor. Instead of showing anger to a scene of bullying at school, she shows concern for the bully, to which Poppy discovers a sad fact regarding him. Even when some think she needs to mature up, Poppy goes on with her life and dates a nice man, a social worker. Poppy is someone who tries to make everyone happy, even though she is told in the end that she can’t, yet Poppy is not fazed. It is probably Mike Leigh’s most charming work because it does not go down the dark hole his other works have gone into.
Mike Leigh is about keeping it natural with every story and every performance, not trying to stuff a story too much in which regular scripts tend to do. There are those little moments where Leigh goes into that gives a humanistic style for the misfits and frustrated working classes. He is an auteur of the human expression which came from his initial stage background and makes the acting the ultimate nucleus of his great work rather than specific camerawork and editing and keeps it all fresh and original, nothing adapted. For Leigh, it is not the flash that makes him a standout film director, but the basics of human quality and simple stories of human life that he can paint on a film canvas.
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