Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Singularly Humane Filmmaking of Mike Leigh

British writer-director Mike Leigh, whose latest film Another Year makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, is the most generously humane filmmaker working today.

His films, and Another Year is no exception, invariably present sympathetic multi-faceted portraits of ordinary Britons, middle-class, lower middle-class or working-class folk, who are simply trying to get through life, be they the disillusioned socialists of High Hopes (1988), the determined chef trying to make a go of his own restaurant in Life is Sweet (1990) or the troubled families coping on a run down council estate in All or Nothing (2002). The beauty of Leigh’s films – and most of them are fully successful efforts – is that his protagonists are drawn so sympathetically and with such complexity that you feel that you know them and come to care about them deeply. That’s not nearly so common in our current cinematic age of crass, facile and empty movies like Kick-Ass, Life During Wartime and Grown Ups, to name just three of the year’s most offensive movies. (Leigh also made a film called Grown-Ups for TV in 1980 but any commonalities between it and the puerile Adam Sandler movie stop at the title.) I actually saw the word humane used by a reviewer to describe Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, which only goes to suggest how one can pervert the English language. Solondz’s films are anything but humane while Leigh's movies are suffused with humanity.

Leigh, who used to use the credit ‘Devised by Mike Leigh’ to describe the collaborative endeavor involved in his moviemaking – he always asks his cast to create back stories of their characters that even if not directly referenced in the film help them settle into and inhabit their roles – is as far removed from the glitzy, polished Hollywood model of directing as can be. (I still remember catching a glimpse of him at the Oscar ceremony, where he was nominated for 1996’s Secrets & Lies, looking slightly disheveled and completely out of place. You could almost imagine him thinking, “What am I doing in this event? I don’t belong here.”) He’s actually the filmic equivalent of a self-effacing talented craftsman – the work is so seamless you can be forgiven for not realizing that a lot of sweat went into creating the beautiful ‘object’ on screen.

Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in Another Year
Another Year unfolds over the course of a year and revolves around contented couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen), their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), and Tom and Gerri's unhappy friends Ken and Mary (Peter Wight, Lesley Manville). It is typical Leigh: emotionally naked, powerfully honest and, in its depiction of the character of desperately lonely, fortyish secretary Mary (who flirts with any man she finds attractive while trying the patience of those around her), devastating in its cumulative impact. Manville has been in many of Leigh’s movies, including  High Hopes, Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing, but never has she gotten to shine as she does in Another Year. It's baffling that she didn't snag the best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film originally premiered. Her excellent performance might also owe to the comfort level she has with Leigh, having worked with him so often, which goes for most of the cast in the film. Like the late Robert Altman, Leigh likes to surround himself with familiar actors he knows well, including Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, and while they were married, Alison Steadman; not surprisingly, these are also some of England’s finest acting talents.

Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville in Another Year
Leigh also manages to avoid the jaded cynicism of so many directors – again, Todd Solondz comes to mind – who think life is solely bleak and populated only by screwed-up people. When Leigh titles a movie Life is Sweet, he means it. He’s never been averse to offering up happy protagonists on screen, be they the couple at the heart of Another Year, or Sally Hawkins' sweetly optimistic and, yes, genuinely happy, Poppy, the teacher in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). But Leigh isn’t indulging in any false sentiment in his movies; he’s careful to match Poppy up with unhappy, despairing counterparts, such as the racist, angry driving school instructor (Eddie Marsan) who she signs up with when she decides to get her license. The world, he is saying, contains multitudes of types. It’s Leigh’s gift that he not only deftly brings to life the dark clouds and negative emotions that hover over so many of us but that he recognizes that their polar opposites have a place on screen, too, without ever sugar coating them or their genuine happiness.

David Thewlis in Naked
While Another Year may be of a type in Mike Leigh’s cinematic oeuvre (carefully and sharply observed family dramas), he periodically ventures out of his comfort zone, to equally great and memorable effect. Naked (1993) has Johnny, a raging young man, played by David Thewlis (Beguiled), in what is still his best role, careening through the deserted nighttime streets of London, assaulting or assailing anyone he comes in contact with. This film has to be one of the most corrosive and darkly fascinating movies ever made, even in the England of kitchen sink realism, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar or Alfie. (Naked does, unfortunately, contain one of the director's few one dimensional characters, a rich, evil yuppie who is used to set the plot in motion.) Topsy-Turvy (1999), his entertaining and colourful bio of musical creators Gilbert & Sullivan, conversely, is one of the most buoyant movies Leigh’s ever made. While Vera Drake (2004), a somber and sad portrait of an abortionist in 1950s Britain, is a deeply poignant and disturbing movie.

Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman in Nuts in May
Other movies of Leigh’s, such as the harrowing portrait of mental illness that is at the core of Grown-Ups, or the scathing satire of  his TV film Nuts in May (1976), wherein a hippy-dippy, vegan, pacifist couple goes camping with disastrous results, testify to the range and breadth of both Leigh’s interests and cinematic skills. In fact, the only outright dud of his that I can think of – and there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t stumbled with a project at one time or another – is Career Girls (1997), a portrait of two reuniting friends that is undone by maladroit flashbacks and an overly thin storyline. Oddly enough, Leigh, who is Jewish, has never essayed a film with personalities from his own background, though he has done so on stage in Two Thousand Years (2005).

Mostly, though, Leigh pretty much pull offs anything he wants or sets out to do on film, including overtly political dramas (1985’s telefilm Four Days in July, which dealt with ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland) and even quirky shorts (1987's The Short and Curlies). And while Another Year isn’t quite up to his best work – it’s a bit monotonous and not quite as expansive as it could have been – it's a good film that still demonstrates that even less than perfect Leigh is better than most filmmakers’ output. Like virtually all his films, it offers up something of permanent value and heft.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He'll be teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors (including Leigh) this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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