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The Quiet Desperation of Mike Leigh at Lincoln Center

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
From May 27th through June 8th, 2022, Film at Lincoln Center presented Human Conditions: The Films of Mike Leigh, a very rewarding retrospective of the brilliant English director. Unfortunately, most of the works were not screened in their correct formats—most of his films that were photographed in 35-millimeter were screened in digital—but it was a wonderful opportunity to see or re-see those that were. I’ve here appended some commentary on the titles I viewed.
Although Leigh’s work forms a unity, the beautiful High Hopes from 1988—his first theatrical feature since his extraordinary debut, Bleak Moments, from 1971—seems like a breakthrough into what subsequently became Leigh’s characteristic mode, although it is not a simple matter to explain in virtue of what the distinction lies—one intuition is that the later works employ a certain schematism in scenario construction whereas the scenes in the earlier films are closer in character to sketches paratactically organized rather than architecturally plotted. Meantime, a terrific film from 1983, in this way appears closer to productions like Bleak Moments and the charming Nuts in May from 1977 than to the works inaugurated by High Hopes—which proved also to be Leigh’s breakout film internationally—although Meantime’s focus on the bleakness of English working-class life and family conflict were to continue to be central preoccupations. Film at Lincoln Center’s program note is as follows:
An episodic comic drama originally produced for Britain’s Channel 4, Meantime centers on the Pollocks, an East End–dwelling working-class family trying to keep the lights on amid the recession during Thatcher’s premiership. Mavis (Pam Ferris) works while her ornery husband Frank (Jeff Robert) and their sons Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels) collect unemployment; meanwhile, Mavis’s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband (Alfred Molina) enjoy the comforts of life in the comparatively posh suburb of Chigwell. We follow the characters across a host of familiar settings—pubs, flats, the unemployment office—as they just try to get by, with Leigh deftly interweaving these scenes to produce a dimensional and sobering portrait of the indignities of life on the dole. 
Although critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman have astutely remarked upon a Manichaenism of “good souls and villains” (see below) in Leigh’s work, it is interesting that another noted feature of the director’s oeuvre is its ambiguity, which is one o fMeantime’s great strengths—here as often elsewhere, this film invites the viewer to interpret which of the characters’ possible, and possibly contradictory, motives may be at play as well as how benign or malign they are. As usual with Leigh, Meantime is populated by multiple extraordinary performances—I single out for special mention those of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, when they were unknowns, and the now undervalued Phil Daniels. Also worth citing is the quality of the digital transfer in what is described as a 2K “restoration.” 
The latter is also true of the accompanying short film, the wonderful, comic—if not without its “bleak moments”—The Short and Curlies, which is especially memorable for an early appearance of a hilarious David Thewlis, and is one more step towards the artistic maturity of High Hopes.The program note for it reads: “A woman (Sylvestra Le Touzel) navigates a romance with a man (David Thewlis) who never ceases cracking jokes, while also reporting back on it to her adoring hairdresser mother.”
Film at Lincoln Center’s program note on the impressively photographed Another Year from 2002 reads as follows:
The lives of three proletarian families in London form the fabric of Leigh’s eighth theatrical feature, another vividly traced and superlatively acted portrait of everyday working-class struggle. Cab driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his grocery-cashier wife Penny (Lesley Manville) deal with the fallout of their heavyset son’s (James Corden) heart attack, while Penny’s colleague Maureen (Ruth Sheen) contends with her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy; meanwhile, Phil’s fellow driver Ron’s (Paul Jesson) homelife grows ever more fraught as his teenage daughter (Sally Hawkins) seemingly has eyes for two different boys, one of whom may be stalking her.
The outstanding critic J. Hoberman in The Village Voice commented usefully on the work:
The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.
Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter. 
In Leigh’s period films, such as his incredible Topsy-Turvy from 1999—about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan—and Vera Drake from 2004—one of his strongest and visually richest works—the schematism remarked upon above was considerably relaxed. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s capsule for The Chicago Reader described it thus:
Mike Leigh paints a warm and tragic portrait of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a good-hearted wife and mother in 1950 London who works as a cleaning lady but also as an unpaid abortionist. Much of the film’s potency derives from its personal edge–the passion for precise period decor, the title dedicating the film to Leigh’s parents (a doctor and midwife), and even the childlike classification of many characters as either good souls or villains. Leigh evokes British director Terence Davies in a brief cinemagoing scene, and the same innocence Davies brought to his stories of postwar Britain informs this parable of a person whose good works land her in prison (also the great theme of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51). The detailing of Vera’s family is close to perfection. 
Hoberman in The Village Voice fully commented:
Leigh constructs the movie as an accretion of briskly delineated scenes: Vera and husband attending a picture show, Vera helping her plain daughter find a mate. The vignettes cut across class lines—moving from cramped, dingy flats to the palatial homes that Vera cleans, and showing, among other things, the means by which a poor little rich girl [ . . . ] terminates the fruit of a casual date rape. 
He added:
Vera Drake divides neatly in two. As customary with Leigh, there’s a Manichaean streak—the selfish characters are truly odious. But what’s most provocative is the way that comfy social drama turns into unrelenting weepie [ . . . . ] As the dramatic space constricts and celestial music builds, our Vera is turned, most horribly, to stone. Her anguished solitude as she is judged by a world of powerful men in uniforms and wigs cannot help but invoke the passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan [ . . . . ] Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh’s movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.
About Happy-Go-Lucky from 2008, the program note reads:
Played with star-making sparkle by Leigh stock-company player Sally Hawkins (whose performance earned her the Best Actress Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlinale), Poppy is a single, 30-year-old elementary school teacher whose relentless optimism is not always welcome. She has to deal with a child being bullied, and she’s unnerved while taking driving lessons from a bitter, racist, and damaged instructor (a wonderful Eddie Marsan), as antisocial as Poppy is trusting and open.
Hoberman in The Village Voice said: “There’s nothing aristocratic about Poppy: She’s a modestly gaudy people’s heroine industriously repairing the social world, one frayed interaction at a time.”
He noted illuminatingly:
As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is “less a dramatic figure than an edifying one,” and, in writingThe Idiot, the author was urgently seeking something beyond art—namely that which “man can be.” It would be unfair to burden the entertaining and occasionally glib Happy-Go-Lucky with such weighty intent, but, for all his reputation as a sour miserablist, Leigh has made some blatantly utopian movies—most obviously his paean to popular art, Topsy-Turvy, and, in a different register, the pro-choice passion playVera Drake.
More than a few critics were troubled by the unrealistically safe saline abortions performed byVera Drake‘s angelic outlaw heroine. But in opposing a criminal state, this warmhearted busybody embodied the promise of a more enlightened social order—the safe, reassuring abortionist of the future. So it is with the altruistic Poppy, whose adult devotion to education and occasionally expressed childish desire to fly seem to herald a further stage of human development.
The program note for Another Year from 2010 summarizes it this way:
Another Year observes four seasons in the lives of longtime married couple Tom and Gerri (the marvelous Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen); their 30-year-old bachelor son Joe (Oliver Maltman); and Gerri’s single, middle-aged work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). A houseguest so frequent she’s practically family, Mary at first seems a harmless sad sack, drinking too much and bemoaning her failures in life and love. But as time passes, and summer gives way to fall, Mary’s depression grows, and her behavior becomes ever more erratic.
Jonathan Romney astutely observed about the film in The Independent:
For all its undemonstrative realism, there are bold tones of expressionism to Another Year. They're present in the broader strokes of some of the acting – in the protective personae that Mary and Ken have created for themselves – and in the look of the winter section, where all warmth and colour are bled out of the visuals as the film contemplates death, loneliness and life's unhealed wounds.
Mr. Turner from 2014, a biographical film focusing on the last twenty-five years of the life of the greatest of English painters, J.M.W. Turner, was—along with Topsy-Turvy—Leigh’s most ambitious film to that date. I discerned a connection with Jean Renoir here—an influence upon the director that he has acknowledged—not so much in that director’s humanism or warmth, as in the texture of the quotidian, although Renoir’s deployment of the permeable frame—which evokes the world beyond it—contrasts with the relative conservatism of Leigh’s style—with respect to narrative structure, however, this is probably the director’s most advanced work. This was the filmmaker’s first movie shot with a digital camera and he and his terrific cinematographer Dick Pope exploited its possibilities admirably. Spall powerfully conveys the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, assisted by an amazing supporting cast, including Marion Bailey, Manville, Martin Savage, Dorothy Atkinson, and many others.
Peterloo from 2018, “produced in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre,” the slaughter of workers demanding suffrage reform in Manchester in 1819, is the director’s latest work, and his most ambitious of all. Leigh boldly and successfully contrived to conduct the exposition of the relevant background through speeches and discussions, a reliance on the verbal as weighty as in the films of Joseph Mankiewicz as well as those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, but this strategy is not employed at the expense of the visual interest of the world depicted—the filmmaker is alive to the manifold cinematic splendors of his subject, marvelously achieved again with his longtime collaborator, Pope. The film is notable too for having no protagonist, although he anchors the narrative in one poor family largely employed in the local textile mill but he provides a portrait of the entire social world relevant to the event, including the Prince Regent and his mistress, the local magistrates, the military command, the constabulary and their informers, the mill owners, the press, as well as the reformers. Peterloo will undoubtedly be increasingly esteemed as a classic left-wing political film anatomizing the capitalist transformation of feudal England and the emergence of a new social order. The exceptional Rory Kinnear compellingly inhabits the role of the social reformer, Henry Hunt, whom Leigh observes with Premingerian objectivity. 
I profoundly hope that Leigh can acquire financing for future projects—this retrospective was an inspirational opportunity to revisit his work.

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