The Greats: Mike Leigh

Movies Features Mike Leigh
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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

“Let me begin by quoting Alfred Hitchcock,” Mike Leigh said at the start of an interview he gave in the fall of 2010. “‘A woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing doesn’t want to go to the movies to watch a film about a woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing.’ And, in my experience, Mr. Hitchcock’s assertion is rubbish because I really think people are greatly stimulated and enriched by experiencing in film—just as we can from novels and other art—experiencing things that resonate with what our lives are about.”

Leigh’s career is all the proof he needs to back up his claim. The British writer-director, who has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Palme d’Or, has largely focused on “regular people,” exploring how limited prospects and a sometimes self-defeating attitude can crush individuals. Leigh doesn’t bother ennobling the common man; his characters are often painfully flawed and troublesome. But his insistence on realism and a certain amount of evenhandedness has produced an oeuvre keenly invested in the rhythms of working-class life. Consequently, he’s unlike just about any other contemporary filmmaker: Nobody so consistently travels the terrain that’s been his métier.

Born in February 1943, Leigh grew up in Manchester, the son of a doctor. (His mother was a midwife.) The young man didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, though: “I grew up … going to the movies a lot, as much as they’d let you,” he once said. He gorged on British and American movies—“I didn’t see a film that wasn’t in English until I was 17 when I went to London to be a student”—and he aspired to become an actor. His father wasn’t impressed. In a 1994 interview with The Boston Globe’s Jay Carr, Leigh recalled, “He described my ambitions as ‘the moonings of a stage-struck girlie.’”

Undeterred, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, but he found the school’s acting style limiting. “[I]t was a very mechanical approach to acting,” he told The Believer in 2008. “You learned the lines and the moves. You didn’t discuss the play or improvise. Since then, the culture of drama schools has completely changed. Improvisation—the cornerstone of my process as a director—is now a standard part of actor training.”

Leigh’s destiny wasn’t as a performer. He moved into directing and writing, first for the stage and then for British television. His milieu was determined by a thought that struck him as a boy: “I used to sit in the cinema thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a film in which the characters were like real people instead of being like actors?’” His early work emphasized improvisation and experimentation, and by the time he moved to feature films, he began concentrating on an unusual creative process. Rather than giving an actor a script, Leigh has a conversation. As he explained to Big Think, “I say to any actor that is going to be in [one of my films], ‘I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.’”

What he seeks are actors who will trust him to go out on this limb, to dream up a character together and then rehearse for months with other actors to begin developing the idea of the final product. “I bring into existence each sequence, structuring and writing all through rehearsal,” he explained to Bomb in 1994. “The preliminary period, the four months previous to shooting, is the period in which the characters, their relationship and their whole world, come into existence through … a lot of research, improvisation and discussion.”

None of this would be interesting if the films weren’t good. Thankfully, they have been, uncommonly so.

He made his first feature in the early 1970s, Bleak Moments, and its pithy IMDb plot description is almost comically grim: “Moments from the uncompromisingly bleak existence of a secretary, her retarded sister, aloof and uneasy teacher boyfriend, bizzare [sic] neighbour and irritating workmate.” Aside from the specificity of the characters, that could be the overview of many Leigh films. In a sense, they’re all about bleak moments—or, more accurately, how individuals grapple with bleak moments.

Leigh didn’t make his next theatrical film until 1988’s High Hopes—although don’t overlook his 1983 Channel 4 TV movie Meantime, which starred the young Tim Roth and Gary Oldman—and from there he devoted most of his time to features. (He does write or direct the occasional play.) Like High Hopes, his next effort, Life Is Sweet, was about a family, drawing out expert performances on a low budget. (Again, this is something that could be said of so many Leigh films.) But if anyone thought Leigh was merely going to be a conjurer of small-scale comedy-dramas—kinda-sorta sad, funny takes on luckless nobodies—his next film was a striking reversal.

A movie set in a London of seemingly perpetual midnight, Naked starred David Thewlis as the miserable bastard Johnny, a man who beds a few women in between riffing on the meaninglessness of everything. (When he’s asked by another character if he’s ever seen a dead body, Johnny replies, “Only my own.”) A dark howl of a film, Naked felt almost post-apocalyptic, except there were no zombies or nuclear devastation: The miserableness of life itself had wiped out the population.

“The fabric of society is crumbling in England,” Leigh told Carr at the time. “There are people all around the streets. … I mean, I do worry as to where we are going. I wanted to do a millennium film, and the peculiar thing I felt about a possible impending apocalypse is that it doesn’t seem incredibly unfeasible now.” If Leigh’s earlier films had been tender shrugs about the general wretchedness of the everyday, Naked was a feverish rant, a late-night spewing of the resentments and anxieties we’re usually able to keep bottled up.

Those dark emotions were once again explored in Leigh’s follow-up film, Secrets & Lies, but the execution was completely different: an ultimately heartwarming ensemble family drama in which a middle-aged woman (Brenda Blethyn) unexpectedly reunites with the daughter (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) she gave up for adoption years ago. Leigh has listed Tokyo Story as one of his favorite films and, although admittedly it’s a stretch, there’s something intriguing about viewing Secrets & Lies as his homage to that Yasujir? Ozu classic: Both dramas are about the particular sting of family, but also the ways in which those bonds can be mysteriously powerful, even restorative.

Secrets & Lies brought universal acclaim—Leigh won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, after he’d been bestowed with the Best Director prize for Naked—and Oscar nominations raised his profile in the United States. Nevertheless, he remains resistant to Hollywood, despite growing up on its movies. “I nurture a healthy love-hate relationship with Hollywood,” he once said. American money has helped finance some of his films, but Leigh has insisted on staying at arm’s length from the studios. “The main problem is that the Hollywood system has already made the film before the director shoots a single frame,” he said.

The acclaim of Secrets & Lies didn’t change Leigh’s approach—or his subject matter. Career Girls and All or Nothing were more stories about families and friends. But in between those two, he made 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, a relatively lavish period piece about the 19th century theatrical team of W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) as they prepare to mount their latest production, The Mikado. Part musical, part behind-the-scenes comedy, Topsy-Turvy represented a radical tonal shift in Leigh, uncovering a man capable of great crowd-pleasing entertainment.

“I felt it would be a good thing to make a film about us, what we do, we who suffer and go to hell and back taking very seriously the job of making other people laugh,” Leigh said at the time, later adding, “I don’t think the film is ‘about’ Gilbert and Sullivan. What it is actually about and what I hope we really tackle and deal with is things to do with creative process, with theatre, with relationships—between men and women and working relationships.”

His next period piece was entirely different in temperament. Set in 1950, Vera Drake was a bone-dry drama about an underground abortionist (Imelda Staunton)—the procedure was illegal at the time in London—whose clandestine vocation is unknown to her husband and adult children. Like Naked and Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake reframed Leigh’s close inspection of ordinary lives, making room for thriller conventions and political commentary without sacrificing the core humanity that’s always his principle interest. (If Secrets & Lies made viewers misty-eyed, the deceptively dispassionate Vera Drake wrung tears even more forcefully.)

He has continued to subvert expectations ever since. Happy-Go-Lucky, featuring a terrific performance from Sally Hawkins, concerned a resolutely positive (and somewhat immature) 30-year-old schoolteacher whose sunny outlook gets severely tested by the disappointments and angry people around her. Interestingly, though, Leigh saw Poppy as the other side of the coin to Naked’s nihilistic Johnny. “Each is, first and foremost, an idealist, and their ideals are actually not too dissimilar,” he told The A.V. Club. “They each would eschew materialism and believe in real, proper values. The difference, obviously, is that Johnny is frustrated and embittered and disappointed with the world, and Poppy’s not prepared to go that way. Poppy wants to be proactive and positive and confront things and deal with it.”

The secret to his next superb movie can be found in a comment he made in the same interview. Asked if Happy-Go-Lucky was about happiness being a matter of perspective, the filmmaker responded, “It’s an unhealthy habit to say that life is what you make of it, and if you want to be happy, then you can be happy. That’s just rubbish, basically. Life is about luck and it’s about circumstances and socioeconomic conditions and all the rest of it, but you know, you can also make choices. It’s about spirit and generosity and all the other things, too.” As if to back up his contention, he delivered Another Year, a gracefully understated drama about a happily married older couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and their friends, many of whom (especially Lesley Manville as the high-maintenance Mary) are struggling to find the contentment that has blessed the central couple their whole lives. Gently investigating the role of luck in our lives, Another Year would seem like a warm soufflé from just about any other writer-director, but because Leigh made it, there’s always a tinge of sadness around the edges: If happiness is so ephemeral, how can we know it’ll last?

“I don’t really think of what I’m doing as a career, exactly,” Mike Leigh said in 2000. “I think you can have a career as a doctor or a lawyer, but not as a filmmaker.” But even he has had to acknowledge the inevitable in later years: In 2008, he invoked the C-word, saying, “I’ve reached a stage in my career where I want to paint on a larger canvas. The films would still be Mike Leigh films, but just bigger things.” That larger canvas is the ambitious biopic Mr. Turner, which premiered at Cannes this summer, winning Timothy Spall (who plays painter J.M.W. Turner) a Best Actor prize.

It’s possible to pin down what a “Mike Leigh film” is, but even then it morphs and evolves over time. “The films are all very different from each other within my, as it were, ‘genre,’ but at the same time there’s no question that it is one long continuous film,” he told Film Comment, adding, “I’m merely talking about that particular combination of realism and some kind of heightened eccentricity and my take on the world, and the relationship between form and content, between a very disciplined and restrained kind of shooting in relation to an organic exploration of situations, and truthful and courageous performances.”

Even someone who spends his day washing and cooking and ironing would agree.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.