In the comments to my piece on NAKED (1993), an issue was raised that comes up a lot when discussing Mike Leigh’s films. Chris said:
I sometimes find that his actors play drama-school versions of working class people. There is a certain lack of authenticity that some how doesn’t let me into his work. For example, I find Brenda Blethyn’s character in SECRETS AND LIES (1996) annoying.
My response to this is… I agree, up to a point. There are older Mike Leigh films I can’t get a handle on where there’s a strange mix of the kitchen sink and the overwrought. For example, I find some of the performances in LIFE IS SWEET (1990) quite jarring. But I also think that in the last 10-15 years, Leigh has largely overcome this problem and now consistently works with actors who can get the most out of his semi-improvisational method. Here are four films which I would recommend to anyone who still associates Leigh with Alison Steadman squawking at someone over a teapot.
THE REGRET RIEN
1. TOPSY-TURVY (1999)
Conveniently overlooked by Mike Leigh besmirchers who claim that all his films are heavy-handed, worthy soap operas for Guardian readers. A period drama set around the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera ‘The Mikado’, TOPSY-TURVY leaves Leigh’s more familiar overclass/underclass territory completely behind. Ever true to his organic method, Leigh insisted all actors had to do their own singing. With, erm, mixed results, but the film as a whole is witty and entertaining, and about as far away in tone from his next two films as you can get…
2. VERA DRAKE (2004)
… but don’t let that put you off. The story of a backroom abortionist in 1950s east-end London, VERA DRAKE can be an emotionally draining film to watch, and so it was tediously inevitable that this would be the Mike Leigh film to attract all the award nominations, but the screenplay and Imelda Staunton’s performance in the title role really do warrant the attention. Leigh regular Ruth Sheen is also excellent playing against type as the black marketeer who connects Vera with local women in need of her services. I think VERA DRAKE stands as exhibit A for the defence against the stereotyping charge, it is is an honest and affecting depiction of these characters’ lives and a vivid portrait of the time.
3. ANOTHER YEAR (2010)
In the other thread I mentioned that Leigh now has his casting down to a fine art, and in Lesley Manville he has discovered one of his most effective collaborators. Though she has played smaller roles in Leigh films from HIGH HOPES (1988) through to ALL OR NOTHING (2002), it wasn’t until Leigh’s to-date most recent film that Manville was given the chance to deliver such an extraordinary performance as Mary, a middle-aged divorcee struggling to keep up appearances against a rising tide of loneliness and alcohol abuse. Manville will return in Leigh’s next film MR TURNER, set to be released in October this year.
4. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)
This seems to be a divisive one. My wife couldn’t even make it to the end, as she found Sally Hawkins’ relentless optimism too annoying to watch. It’s interesting that many critics, especially British ones, complained that NAKED (1993) was too bleak and nihilistic, yet try to make a film about positivism and some people will hate it even more. Hawkins’ character Poppy is reflected in the brilliant Eddie Marsan’s driving instructor Scott, an unhinged conspiracy theorist constantly on the verge of road rage. The moment when he flips and exposes his insecurities and self-loathing, at the same time highlighting Poppy’s own neuroses, is one of Leigh’s most powerful recent scenes.
THE RED FLAG
5. HIGH HOPES (1988)
The most cartoonish of Leigh’s films. Cyril and Shirley are like Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of what beardy lefty types no doubt get up to in their spare time, complete with weekend trips to Marx’s tomb (costs eight quid to get in now, they wouldn’t be doing that these days). There’s a political point in there somewhere but if you have to draw such crude caricatures to make it it can’t be much of one.