First Person Plural

The search for happiness in Mike Leigh's comedies of manners
by Michael Atkinson  posted October 17, 2008
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Mike Leigh didn't exactly rescue British cinema in the Thatcher ice age—Greenaway, Ivory, Jordan, Frears, and Loach had all recently crafted global profiles by the time Leigh busted out in 1988, with High Hopes—but then as now, it certainly seems as if he had. Suddenly, here was a distinctively English voice, as genuine as recorded chatter at a Croydon bus stop, and yet outrageously expressive and lampoon-ist (let's call it comic post-realism), infused with a jocular sympathy and microscopically focused on the lost fringe lives of modern lower-to-middle-class Londoners. These were not films that could've happened anywhere but England, and took pulse-checking matters like prole struggle, immigration, and class permafrost as their main text. In a steady run of films since, some major, some minor variations on Leigh's topography, the filmmaker has essentially crafted a national cyclorama—a one-man people's-history panorama of the British moment, Balzacian in breadth but in tone oozing with dry bloke comedy.

His new film, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), may be a sign of age-acquired optimism (Leigh's 65 this year), or a farcical tear through English pluckiness, or one or the other, slalom-fashion, as the film's elfishly buoyant heroine (Sally Hawkins) negotiates her life without ever dropping her smile. Most viewers have taken the movie as a balm, in much the same way Eric Rohmer's relaxed and lovable vacation films were, but it's still not difficult to imagine Leigh (and Hawkins) mustering the perky Pauline "Poppy" Cross as a tribulation for her audience, a relentlessly, often gratingly giddy Candide figure who never has her childlike worldview challenged. It could be an experiment in empathy: how will our fondness and expectations of dramatic cataclysm undulate as the feature progresses, and how will our distance and cynicism defend themselves from the onslaught of so much good will? Should Hawkins's bubblehead be instructive for us, as a model of how to best and least miserably endure our time on Earth? (That a "Pauline cross," in theological debate, suggests a Christ symbol intended as pedagogic guidance for the commonweal is a deep-reading matter to take up, I'd think, with Leigh directly.)

There's a strain of Wodehouse at work, in the belief that no incident or action is as significant, or as hilarious and lovely, as a character's presence of soul. Through his characters, Leigh has always been hunting for happiness—their tics, obsessions, follies, brutalizations, and heroic efforts to overcome social handicaps constitute variations on a theme. No Leigh story cannot be boiled down to a scattershot search for condolence and joy, which fits him into the disenfranchised lost soul tradition so popular in several New Waves, and which makes him a brother to Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai. Fittingly, Leigh's is a people's cinema, predicated less on visual style or strategy than on time, time spent in intimate contact with the characters, watching them work out problems (as in Brenda Blethyn's diner scene in 1996's Secrets & Lies and the bewitching rehearsal sequence in 1999's Topsy-Turvy), sitting with them on station benches and tacky living room couches, and providing them with company and attention.

Leigh's methodology is famous for a reason: in a modern world where films don't even try to disguise the fact that characters are contrived merely to inhabit the high-concept core of a film, his films place the person first on the assembly line. Creating characters with his cast before any screenplay gets written, he realigns why we watch movies—not for crashing, hair-raising event, but for empathy's sake, to share in the human moment. Happy-Go-Lucky may feel to some viewers lopsided toward the heroine and away from the narrative. Certainly it's no more plot-driven than Naked (1993), perhaps Leigh's most unforgettable work and a yin to the new movie's bouncy yang.

An unsettling, breathtakingly articulate spew of apocalyptic discontent, Naked regards its tyrannical bottom-feeder hero, played by David Thewlis, with the same compassionate dignity in which Leigh considers the man's myriad of social victims; we judge his actions (which include near-rape, abuse, exploitation, etc.) but never the man, utterly shipwrecked as he is on the fringes of life with nothing but his whirligig brain and tireless mouth to justify his being alive. What Leigh did was take the existentialist docket of Beckett—for whom human beings were often reduced to merely a self-consuming consciousness and a non-stop gout of talk—and manifest it in the actual London, on the streets and in the flops and alleys. Thewlis's caustic, ranting madman is at the same time a mesmerizing leviathan and a mundane, recognizable personage to any urban dweller, and therein, in pointedly poisonous form, lies Leigh's ultimate program: the humanization of the forgotten and the inadequate, the ego-less pursuit of Terence's dictum, Nothing human can be alien to me. What filmmaker has displayed such patience and amused respect for the uneducated, even slow-witted lower classes? The lack of judgment in Naked is remarkable even when placed against a correlative movie like Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980)—whereas Scorsese's agenda entailed devoting titanic passion to a monstrous man for the sake of the filmmaker's own sanctification (what other reason could he have had?), Leigh never decides the weight of sin or the relative value of his character. The man just is, indelibly.

From High Hopes to All or Nothing (2002), with the curious but ecstatic exception of Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's filmography retained a political purity of feeling—virtually nowhere else in recent film culture can you find such a private, fully three-dimensional experience of "third estate" reality, explored for its every bruise, emotional explosion, and pitiable psychic pockmark. Overt circumstances, such as poverty and war, do not intercede as they might in a Ken Loach scenario; for Leigh, the quotidian is the drama, and the individual is the story. "In real life, as in a story," wrote C.S. Lewis, who'd doubtless have opinions about things "Pauline" himself, "something must happen. That is just the trouble." Leigh disagrees—there’s no "must happen" when it comes to narrative, just the imperative of his fellow man. 


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Courtesy Miramax Films
Sally Hawkins and Mike Leigh filming Happy-Go-Lucky
Photo Gallery: First Person Plural


October 18-19, 2008 Weekend with Mike Leigh
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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct