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Shit Life Syndrome: Mike Leigh Beyond The Hits
Fergal Kinney , November 2nd, 2018 13:13

With Mike Leigh's latest film, Peterloo, in UK cinemas this weekend, Fergal Kinney takes a deep dive through some of the British director's less well-known pictures

Taking a break from all fifty books he’s reading at any one time, the writer Will Self interviewed the British director Mike Leigh, and put to Leigh that “people get distracted by, you know the red wine in the fridge. But really, this is spiritual art.” 

In the interview, Leigh nods his head and agrees firmly with Self’s interpretation. He does also point out that this must not be over intellectualised – he’s flattered by reading reviews that link his work to Schopenhauer, but he’s never read a single line of his writing. What Leigh does instead is vividly articulate some of the most pressing human questions and emotions. Loneliness. Memory. Deception. What happens if I have a child? What happens if I don’t have a child? Loss. Failure. Poverty. What’s happened to this relationship? What do I want from life? Family. Hurt. Joy. The passing of time. The fucking passing of time.

On 2nd November, Mike Leigh releases Peterloo – his fourth historical drama, and for my money the best of the best of the four. The release of a new Mike Leigh film generally brings broadsheet profiles with the same set of films referenced – Naked, Abigail’s Party, Vera Drake. Life is Sweet last year enjoyed a lavish BFI resissue, Nuts in May is now happily sat on iPlayer for the foreseeable future.

There’s a reason these films are the main pillars of the man’s career – it’s because they’re absolutely excellent. There are, however, films in his canon that for any other filmmaker would be defining moments. It must be noted that there are no major obscurities to salvage, nor any flops to reappraise – Leigh has been a big name director for at least two decades, so instead we simply have films that get written about less than others.

Hard Labour (1973)

“Hitchcock famously said that the kind of woman who spends all day washing up and doing the housework does not want to go to the cinema to see a film about someone who spends all day washing up and doing the housework. And Hitchcock, on this thing and many others, was a million miles from the truth. He didn't know what he was talking about. It is definitely and consistently the case that people love to see a film which reflects their own lives. Because you don't usually see that in the movies. They think it's an absolute gas. They relate to it and they are moved by it.” – Mike Leigh, 2002

Hard Labour was Mike Leigh’s first television play for the BBC, under the stewardship of Tony Garnett, who also brought Ken Loach into the BBC drama fold. The film is one of Mike Leigh’s most sombre works – the relative inexperience of the cast affording the film a real naturalism. The only previous acting experience of Clifford Kershaw, who plays Mr Thornley, was his work as a silent extra in Coronation Street, whilst Liz Smith, who plays Mrs Thornley, had only very recently entered acting.  

The film shows a short snapshot of Mrs Thornley’s life – a life of silent, stinging desperation. The hard labour that the title refers to is both her employment – cleaning for a middle-class family – and her subservient role in a degrading and loveless marriage. Mr Thornley, humiliated by his boss at work, is a low level tyrant in the home. Purposefully not played as a grotesque, Mr Thornley’s casual cruelty represents the typical experience of marriage at the time, making Hard Labour all the more horrific four decades on.

Hard Labour is perhaps Leigh’s most straightforwardly autobiographical work – this was his second film, and he’s spoken subsequently of a strong urge to document his upbringing whilst that world was still in existence. The film was shot two doors down from Leigh’s childhood home in the Higher Broughton area of Salford. Leigh born to a Jewish lower-middle class family (the lower-middle class being, as Taylor Parkes wrote on these pages, “a kind of sweet spot from which you can sneer at almost anyone with complete impunity”). The dialogue between Mrs Thornley and the woman whose house she cleans is a direct echo from Leigh’s childhood – Mrs Leigh would call their cleaner by her first name, whilst the cleaner would say only “Mrs Leigh”. Progress means our economic oppressors now at least insist on first name terms.

There’s an innovation at work in Hard Labour, too – the kitchen sink cinema of the 1960s had passed, but those films were all adaptations of novels or plays, Hard Labour was a pioneering example of original, self-authored kitchen sink drama. Sexual tyranny, suburban barbarism, class division, emotional repression – all the devils of Leigh’s next forty-five years are here.

Grown Ups (1980)

One of the most enduring expressions of Leigh’s influence would be found in comedy – not even on the fringes, but in its most mainstream expressions. Whilst Nuts in May is perhaps the only straightforward comedy Leigh has made, films like Grown Ups were central to inspiring a whole generation of British comedy writers and performers.

Grown Ups centres on a young couple (Dick and Mandy – Phil Davis and Lesley Manville, respectively) who move into a council house that happens to be next door to the private home of the Butchers, one of whom taught Dick and Mandy at school. Dick and Mandy are horrified to find the privacy they were anticipating to be in short supply. Mandy’s elder sister, the parasitic Gloria, stalks the house like a poltergeist – making endless cups of tea and finding excuses to never leave. In this role, Brenda Blethyn is revelatory and genuinely terrifying. Things come to a head, as they often do in the final half an hour of a Mike Leigh film, and both houses become possessed by a primal ruckus, brilliantly mixing farce with pathos. Simmering throughout the film with resignation, Mandy’s best friend Sharon (Janine Duvitski) voyeurs on the action, a picture of silent but total exhilaration.

Crucially, the film’s climax forces the edifices at the heart of the two households to crumble. Mrs Butcher sees her relationship with Mr Butcher – equal parts tyrant and dullard – for what it is.

“God forbid there are any humans in there!” Mrs Butcher explodes as her husband sits in bed flicking through a book on dinosaurs, “I want sex! I want love! I want a family!”. Next door, Dick acquiesces to Mandy’s longing for a family – “well, it’s normal innit” he observes.

Many artists are understandably dismissive of their imitators, but Leigh appeared genuinely thrilled by the success of The Royle Family in the late 1990s, and how it vindicated many of the ideas and theories he’d slogged away on as a younger man. Caroline Aherne pointed to watching ‘Abigail’s Party’ on TV at her childhood home in Wythenshawe as a catalyst in her becoming a writer – but it would be Grown Ups that would most directly feed into The Royle Family. For one thing, the dynamic between Caroline Aherne and Jessica Hynes’ Denise and Cheryl characters strongly echoes that of Mandy and Sharon. The domestic scenes in Grown Ups are almost a catalogue of future Royle Family tropes – inane quizzing about meals, brew runs, overbearing guests and their culinary demands, the low-level but ceaseless ribbing. Not only is the structure of the front room virtually identical, but the film ends with Mandy fretting about having a baby born on Christmas day (as would happen to Caroline Aherne’s character), balancing a cup of tea on her bump and lighting up a cigarette.

Leigh is a master observer of what Gordon Burn termed “the totalitarianism of the totally pleasant personality”, and you can draw a line from Julia Davis’ roll call of demonic suburban psychopaths right back to many of Leigh’s female characters from the 70s and 80s. Arguably the most memorable of Leigh’s female collaborators, Alison Steadman, would meet Leigh during work on Grown Ups – beginning not only a marriage but a creative partnership that would spawn, amongst others, Abigail’s Party and Life is Sweet.

Career Girls (1997)

“I'm someone who has deservedly been a signal failure at relationships” laughed Mike Leigh in a Guardian interview, “but I do have a good working relationship with actresses." With the exception of Pedro Almodóvar, it’s hard to think of a male filmmaker who has so consistently explored womanhood and women’s experience, not least with such instinct and curiosity. Career Girls follows two women – Hannah and Annie – over one weekend, as they reunite after seven years of Annie having lived away from London. Annie harbours jealousies of her mother’s love life, whilst Hannah’s independence is the learned defensive independence unique to a child of alcoholism. “I haven’t cried since I was nine years old” says Hannah matter-of-factly.

The film cuts between the present and the past – flashbacks of their time at university consisting of mornings in lecture halls, afternoons in the pub and evenings listening to the Cure. “Has it changed much?” asks Annie, being driven through her old stomping ground by Hannah, “it has and it hasn’t”. Career Girls is a film about the ways people change, and the ways they don’t. It’s also Leigh’s most divisive film – its plot features an unusual level of coincidences (an estate agent is an old boyfriend, a university friend appears drunken and shouting on the street) and this rankled an audience reared on Leigh’s strict social realism.

It’s best understood as something of an anomaly in the Leigh canon, and all the better for it. Career Girls followed the triptych of Life is Sweet, Naked and Secrets and Lies – three long films, three intense films, three films that would transform the perception of Leigh. This film is more offhand and with less to prove, and this is much of its charm. The director himself has suggested that its intentions were much more poetic and dreamlike than his audience would have assumed, and it’s a film for which he has an enduring soft spot.

Some of this is down to the career best performance from Katrin Cartlidge, who died suddenly in 2002. All nervous tics and abrasive, free-flowing dialogue (and what dialogue – “on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here” she says when the two women look round a penthouse property), Cartrlidge’s Hannah is both hyperreal and utterly believable, contrasting beautifully with Annie’s naive, parochial vulnerability. What the film’s observes about male and female relationships is also telling – without exception, each encounter with a male ends in the same way – a man feeling entitled and shouting.

So why Career Girls? Like the best of Leigh’s films, it provokes reflection on behalf of the viewer, and its reflective focus naturally forces assessment of your own memory. It asks crucial questions about how our lives and our friendships change and transform, which is really asking questions about how we change and transform. Which is really a way of saying, we don’t.

All Or Nothing (2002)

For Mike Leigh and Lesley Manville, All or Nothing was “the one that got away”. For me, it’s one of the most crucial works in his oeuvre. If Meantime was Leigh’s document of the Thatcher era, then All or Nothing is exactly the Blair parallel.

It’s 2002 – the apex of the boom years – and in the shadow of the Millennium Dome, people in this rich city are living lives of paralysing, grinding misery. Relationships without love – without basic communication, even – lives without meaning, jobs without hope. Unemployment was the problem in ‘meantime’, in All Or Nothing the jobs exist but the compromises they force are no less destructive than the consequences of unemployment.

The film looks behind three doors on a Greenwich council estate, but the emotional heart is Rachel (Alison Garland) and Phil (Timothy Spall) – a checkout attendant and taxi driver, respectively. This would be Spall’s fifth collaboration with Leigh, his jowly face uniquely attuned to the melancholy, humour and pathos of the director’s work. The couple pass between shifts, communicating like distant colleagues. Each character represents nobody or nothing except themselves, but there is a link with Hard Labour in that each character is in at least one way defined and restrained by their economic circumstance. The film asks questions about poverty – what does poverty do to people? How do you react when the chips are down? “It’s… whatsitsname” stammers Phil, “…unbearable.” Medical professionals popularised the term ‘shit life syndrome’, a way of framing those caught in a web of exhaustion, ill diet, low exercise and an economy and culture that reinforces their lives as without value. The rise of populism in this country has been analysed through the lens of the ‘left behind’ – in a less crude way, this is exactly what All or Nothing was observing sixteen years ago. More than this, Leigh was doing so at a point in our nation’s recent history when it was less fashionable to do so – Jonathan Ross famously advised Film 2002 viewers to “give it a body swerve”, citing it “condescending” and “depressing.”

Ross was wrong – wronger still because there are, in fact, real moments of profound joy that seep through the film. Ruth Sheen’s character Maureen sings ‘Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ at karaoke, and it’s so straightforwardly beautiful that it takes on an almost painful quality. And the film’s conclusion is hopeful. For Phil and Rachel, there is no communication, until a family crisis forces them from their stupor and a lifetime of unspoken words and unresolved arguments burst through, wasted years of lives leaking everywhere. Nothing revolutionary happens, but one family finds one way to perhaps get through.

Another Year (2010)

“It’s immensely difficult for me (to talk about)” explained Leigh of ‘Another Year’ in an interview, “it was tough to make because it is elusive… this is the hardest thing of all for me to talk about, it is the most deeply personal film I’ve made. Somebody said to me recently, are you any of the characters in Another Year? Of course, there are no self-portraits in there, but, yes, I am… I mean, I do relate very closely to Tom and Gerri and Mary and Ken and Ronnie. The relationship that the two main characters, Tom and Gerri, have with their son Joe, is very much in the spirit of my own relationship with my two sons.”

Leigh’s working method is still something of an industry secret – actors are discouraged from explaining too much about the process, an enigma at the heart of these films that Leigh rightly wishes to preserve. We do know that there’s heavy character backstory work (Alison Steadman decorated the house for Life is Sweet in character, for Naked David Thewlis was sent to view a dead body). Improvisation is also central, though it’s generally understood that no improvisation occurs in front of cameras, but neither is there any script. For Another Year, the cast underwent an eighteen month rehearsal schedule. The results are Leigh’s definitive late-era masterpiece – four aesthetically distinct chapters representing each season, from a director and writer making sense of his own autumn years.

In the film, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri (the gag is made once, and then never returned to), a happily married couple in their 60s. Stable and serene with grown-up son and allotment to match. In their orbit are two desperately sad figures – the overweight, boozy Ken (Peter Wright) and Mary (Lesley Manville), one of the most gorgeously constructed characters in any Mike Leigh film. Gerri works as a behaviour counsellor, and Mary works in the office there – she is a divorcee who drinks too much. There’s a yawning disconnect between the actuality of her life and the face she strains to maintain in social situations, and as the seasons of the film pass she becomes increasingly unable to align the two. Gerri has professional satisfaction and has made a peace with her age; Mary is clinging to a kind of femininity and sexuality that isn’t really a possibility anymore, something that’s maybe already left.

The film opens with a devastating cameo appearance from Imelda Staunton as Janet – a middle-class woman who has been sent for counselling with Gerri, utterly unable to articulate the extent or effect of her insomnia and blizzarding depression. “On a scale of one to ten how happy are you?” asks Gerri, “one” replies Janet. “What single thing would improve your life, apart from sleep?” “Different life.”

The scene isn’t referred to again, Staunton doesn’t appear again, and its tragedy completely unresolved. Another year passes. There’s also mortality, and a typically Mike Leigh set piece funeral, where distant lives collide and struggle to make sense of one another.

In a lot of ways Another Year is Leigh finally answering some of the questions that stalked his films in the late 80s and early 90s. What happens if we don’t have children? On the basis of Ken and Mary, it appears Leigh has something of a warning here. Another question is at what point do we close the door on people around us? Gerri grapples with what it means to be a friend – when to be supportive and unjudging, and when to voice necessary criticisms.

For me, there’s always been a Rorschach test element to watching the films of Mike Leigh – repeat viewings force often strongly contrasting interpretations at different points. With Another Year, I developed a nagging anxiety about Gerri and Tom’s relationship. Quite why do they surround themselves with emotional basket cases, flaunting their superiority and returning to their private world to eye-roll – “it’s a shame” says Tom at the end of one such night. Is it not Mary who offers Tom’s brother Ronnie (an excellent cameo from David Bradley) genuine compassion? Are Gerri and Tom not blinded to the faults of cheerful but gormless Joe? I’ve no idea – one suspects that part of Leigh’s process is creating networks of characters that he doesn’t fully understand either, as in life.

Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, is in UK cinemas now