Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mike Leigh: A New Film, New Controversy


MIKE Leigh has come under the reviewer’s scrutiny in The Age on both days this weekend (Jan 28-29). His latest film, ‘Another Year’ has just opened in Melbourne. In both cases, it isn’t just a discussion about the film that unfolds. It is also an examination of Leigh as a director. In terms of critical appraisal he is a bit hit and miss. You will find many reviewers across the globe who admire Leigh’s work, and just as many who will find plenty of fault.

Tom Ryan makes his focus immediately clear by using the words ‘rough ride’ at the beginning. For him, Leigh can be a bit depressing, and ‘Another Year’ is a case in point. He also uses the word ‘caricature’ to describe Lesley Manville’s character, a key role. Ryan thinks the actors aren’t given room in the script to move. That they start off a certain way and fail to change, or grow: ‘There are moments when the characters seemed poised to break out of the straitjackets they’ve been forced to wear, but Leigh won’t cut them loose.’ This seems like a sensible review to me. He finds fault with the way the characters fail to emerge, and that’s fine, even if I don’t share his point of view. A good feature of Ryan’s review is that it is objective. He offers, as he sees it, an excellent example of a character in a recent Leigh film that did change, and did emerge, and therefore he gives it a glowing assessment. The film is ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, and the actress was Sally Hawkins, playing Poppy: ‘..that film led us to see that there was much more to its protagonist than initially met the eye.’ Perhaps Tom Ryan wanted Mary to eventually find some peace of mind? I am personally glad she didn’t.

Also this weekend, a much longer discussion, primarily focused on the director, as well as his recent film, by Stephanie Bunbury: ‘True Leigh Low On Sympathy.’ (which follows at the end).

The discussion starts with a well known Leigh quote about each film being essentially the same, and the object being to create people ‘with all our faults and virtues- vulnerable, good and bad.’ And again, ‘all my films, first and foremost, are about that sympathy for people.’ The problem for Stephanie Bunbury is, she can’t find the sympathetic note that Leigh searches for in his films. She refers to what Leigh calls ‘complexities and issues’ as ‘misery.’ She then goes through a list of his back catalogue, creating divisive and usually derisive adjectives to describe his characters, from 1977’s ‘Abigail’s Party’, ‘which satirised the petty ambitions of its suburban characters with a steely contempt’, all the way through to ‘Another Year ‘, and Lesley Manville’s character Mary, representative of a string of ‘generally appalling women’, many of which are even ‘ridiculous and despicable.’

Bunbury’s biggest beef is with the women in Leigh’s film, and her discussion is from a strong feminist standpoint. She is entitled, obviously, to this point of view. I have seen most of the films that Bunbury is uncomfortable with. The fact that my opinion differs so strongly can only be in the interpretation of these films. Why we interpret the films differently is anybody’s guess. A big reason must be that she is female and I am male. But of course it must be more than that. To counteract, therefore, some of Bunbury’s arguments:

First and foremost I have a lot of sympathy for many of the characters that Bunbury struggles to enjoy. I can’t see the ‘steely contempt’ drawn in the people in ‘Abigail’s Party’ for example. Even the husbands in the film, that are either sullen or dull, or trampled upon and hopeless, are ordinary people. They have their faults and virtues in bucket loads. They are a certain type, but seem to me to be authentic, and this is what I am seeking.

I am yet to see what Bunbury refers to as Leigh’s ‘nastiest film, ‘High Hopes.’ She admits that ‘Life Is Sweet’ is ‘comparatively benign’ but still refers to the way in which Leigh ‘wrings maximum snark from lower middle-class Wendy’s embarrassment about the shabby state of her front porch.’ Again, our focus is very different. I don’t remember this scene. For me this film is memorable for its treatment of teenage ennui in the character played by Jane Horrocks, which has nothing to do with treatment of class, or a ‘vicious portrait of suburban aspiration’ as Bunbury refers to it.

Then we get to Bunbury’s description of some of Leigh’s women. She uses the words pretentious, neurasthenic, appalling, resentful, infuriating, dried-up, screeching, amongst others to define them.

So it occurs to me, more than ever, that a reviewer writes for a certain audience, and sometimes it isn’t very broad. Stephanie Bunbury looks at the film from a certain angle- a very personal, feminist one. Mostly because I am male, my concerns are different to hers. Therefore my reading of the film is different. Therefore I cannot read too much into a Bunbury review of a film of this type because I know she will come from a completely different angle, with a completely different focus, and this will cause a wide variation in our levels of appreciation.

I saw ‘Another Year’ and loved it. Just like I have loved most of Leigh’s work, particular ‘Nuts In May’, ‘Vera Drake’, ‘Secrets and Lies’ and ‘All Or Nothing.’ The film centred particularly on Lesley Manville, in her role as a struggling woman called Mary. There were a number of Bergman like shots of Mary’s beautiful but lined and tired face in close-up. Leigh burrowed his way into her soul. Mary’s face reflected her pain and longing beautifully. The film ends, quietly, as it stays with Mary who is sitting around a dinner table with her friends. She is almost sobbing and is completely lost. She simply doesn’t know what to do. As with Timothy Spall’s tear-stained face when he realises his wife doesn’t love him anymore; as with Jane Horrocks, crying when Alison Steadman forces her to face her predicament; Vera Drake shell-shocked when the police gate-crash her party: my experience is that these are some of the most moving scenes in cinema.

For me, none of Bunbury’s adjectives fit Mary. And I certainly don’t see her as ‘generally appalling’, ‘ridiculous and despicable.’ Mary moved me. I felt sorry for her. I am full of sympathy. I thought she was sad and helpless, but not pathetic. There are many women and men like Mary in society. Life has passed them by somehow. She is getting older and she is desperate for some good company. Touching somebody or comfort in some way initially, intimacy even better, later. A good car that is reliable. Her own house. Is this all too much to ask? It seems it is, and Mary hides behind her insecurities by pretending things are ok, and by drinking too much, and by visiting her generous friends too often. And therefore she is very real. And Mike Leigh is giving people like Mary a voice. To remind us that fragile and dependant and troubled people like Mary exist.

And it’s not just the women in life who struggle. Again, a very honest and a very real character is Ronnie, who is in his sixties, and suddenly finds himself alone after the death of his wife. Ronnie is shell shocked, bewildered by this turn of events, and Leigh provides a long scene in which Mary and Ronnie are by themselves in Tom and Gerie’s house, communicating and reaching out to each other and providing succour in a world in which they desperately crave affection.

I reject outright Bunbury’s notion of a lack of sympathy, a type of sneering, and the negativity she associates with these characters. But perhaps we come from completely different worlds with different experiences.


True Leigh low on sympathy

Stephanie Bunbury

January 29, 2011

"Everyone who knows me knows I do what I do with the greatest integrity," says Mike Leigh.

Intensely scrutinised and true to type, Mike Leigh's miserable middle and lower-class characters have little room to grow.

'THE truth is that each film is different," says Mike Leigh, "but as Jean Renoir said, we all go on making the same film. What all these films are about is saying to people 'look, this is how we are with all our faults and virtues — vulnerable, good and bad'. All my films, first and foremost, are about that sympathy for people." How elusive, then, sympathy can be.

At 67, Leigh is often described as Britain's greatest filmmaker. With five Oscar nominations behind him, an OBE, the top awards from Cannes and Venice film festivals (for Secrets and Lies in 1996 and Vera Drake in 2004) among dozens of other prizes, he sometimes seems almost beyond criticism.

He is certainly the only director in the world who can regularly muster sufficient funding for projects that begin with no script, no star cast and no guiding idea — at least, none that Leigh is prepared to share with anybody.

The scripts are worked up through improvisations, typically over a period of six months. "To be honest, the fact that I'm allowed to do what I do in the way that I do it never ceases to amaze me," Leigh said once. "I think I've been remarkably lucky. Nobody has ever interfered, ever."

Leigh's latest film, Another Year, features several of his regular collaborators — Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri, a devoted couple in late middle age, Lesley Manville as their neurotically needy younger friend — whose comings and goings are observed over the span of four seasons marked out in their garden allotment, an oasis of satisfaction.

Outside, misery — or, as Leigh puts it, "the many complexities and issues about how we live our lives" — lies drably in wait. Gerri, a counsellor by day, must cope on more evenings than she might want with Mary, who is perpetually agitated and endlessly unlucky with men, cars and drinking choices. Tom, salt-of-the-earth that he is, has his own millstone: Peter Wight's Ken, a widower whose gloom has settled on him like cloud on a mountain top. Some people, Leigh agrees, have no talent for happiness.

Another Year is Leigh's 13th feature-length film. His first was Bleak Moments (1972), but it was his plays made for the BBC in the '70s that established his credentials. Perhaps the most enduring and important was Abigail's Party (1977), which satirised the petty ambitions of its suburban characters with a steely contempt.

But Meantime (1983) was even more savage, the lives of a family on a London housing estate in an endless dreary round of broken washing machines and the ritual humiliation of the dole office. It was thus that Leigh became the anointed chronicler of Thatcher's Britain.

Five years later, his first film made for the cinema in 17 years, High Hopes, took on the ascendant new Tories with their shoulder pads and renovations in what remains Leigh's nastiest film: he wasted little sympathy on them. Even in his next film, the comparatively benign Life is Sweet (1990), Leigh wrings maximum snark from lower middle-class Wendy's embarrassment about the shabby state of her front porch.

Not everyone is persuaded that these vicious portraits of suburban aspiration are the greatest films Britain has made. Some have ventured that, particularly in these early films, the upper-crust characters — and, even more despicably, those who aspire to be like them — are no more than caricatures, crudely drawn ones at that. He has also been accused of misogyny, although his affectionate portraits of women in Vera Drake (2004) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) have gone some way to redressing the damage done to his reputation by Naked (1993). It was this film, unquestionably his grimmest, that was his most controversial.

Naked opens with a shambling street philosopher, David Thewlis's Johnny, raping a woman in a Manchester back alley. We then follow him through his meanderings to London, ostensibly in an attempt to escape a beating from his victim's family, where all the women he meets are similarly suffering, sad and generally supine. It was their collective failure to provide any resistance to Johnny's malevolent charisma that raised some feminists' ire.

None of this criticism seemed to touch Leigh; he is a practised curmudgeon and, moreover, has a capacity to hit the ball back so hard that he ends up winning every point. "Obviously, the assertions that it was a misogynist film are ridiculous and not even worth talking about," he said dismissively at the time. "I've long since stopped worrying about how I'm portrayed in the press because ultimately it's not that important," he said on another occasion. "Everyone who knows me knows I do what I do with the greatest integrity." There is no arguing, it seems, with "everyone".

More telling to me than the rapist as dubious hero, however, is the string of risibly pretentious, neurasthenic and generally appalling women, usually childless and sliding into a resentful middle age, who pin down the loser's end of so many of Leigh's ensemble casts. The infuriating Mary in Another Year is one in a long line that starts with Beverly in Abigail's Party and includes the dried-up Barbara in Mean-time, the screeching lower middle-class Valerie, craving parity with her posh neighbour, in High Hopes and Monica in Secrets and Lies, all of whom are drawn as simultaneously ridiculous and despicable.

Leigh does not see them this way; Mary, like her predecessors, is both victim of circumstance and author of her own fate as, indeed, we all are. "I refuse to allow anybody to draw me into reducing (her) in such a way that misses the point of the film," he snaps, "which is the complexity of how we are."

Leigh has compared the complex reality he sets out to depict in his films to that in a documentary. The worlds he shows are so detailed they seem to exist independently of the camera. This is the purpose of months of rehearsal. "We really know who these people are. We know everything there is to know about them socially, economically and in every detail of their lives".

And it is this, really, that seems to me the real trouble with Mike Leigh. Nobody knows everything about anyone. If his characters seem exaggerated, it is because they are over-examined types, each with a set of characteristics and preferences that add up to someone we feel, often with a painful sort of amusement, we recognise.

And if their habitual tics, such as Imelda Staunton's constant invitations to all and sundry to have a cup of tea in Vera Drake, rapidly become tiresome, it is because they are repeated with so much significance. Every time Vera delivers the tea line, we tick off her chief perceived trait of homely kindness. Almost everything said illustrates some aspect of the character saying it. If they are types, they are assiduously true to those types.

This means that it is well nigh impossible for them to change. Leigh maintains that while some people see Another Year as optimistic and others as pessimistic, it is actually neither, its much-vaunted complexity meaning that it contains many possibilities for the future. Certainly, we may each read these situations differently but the characters are too firmly fixed to alter those situations. There are Leigh films — All or Nothing (2002) is a moving example — that end with catharsis, but it is through confrontation between selves that remain immutable in themselves.

Perhaps this doesn't matter. Leigh says he likes his films and is pleased they are out in the world and, with the exception of High Hopes, so am I. His admirable commitment, however, shouldn't mean his films are beyond argument. And however much actors enjoy those long rehearsal times and getting to the bottom of their characters' histories — and however great some of the performances — the fact remains that others emerge as cheap parody, less convincing than those drummed up on unrehearsed first takes on the Hollywood films Leigh so despises. As for the sympathy he feels for them — well, that remains as elusive as ever.

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