To coincide with the release of Mike Leigh's latest film, Faber have finally included him in their ongoing series where film directors talk about their own work, and 'Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh' doesn't disappoint. Nor does Pathé's DVD boxset which contains all but this most recent of his cinematic features, many of which have never made it to DVD before. If only the same could be done with his TV work.
Nearly all Leigh's early work was in the theatre or at the BBC; those were happier times and the BBC still had a strong commitment to supporting the arts. 'Abigail's Party' (a 'Play for Today' adapted from his earlier stage version) is probably his best known TV piece , with Alison Steadman doing an unforgettable turn as the monstrous Bev. My personal favourite from that period would have to be 'Nuts in May', the one where a couple of naïve back-to-nature types take a camping holiday. There were consistent features that marked his work - the characters were grotesques, their character flaws exaggerated beyond belief. Mainly people with poor social skills, struggling to find their way through life, or those achieving a little upward mobility driven by their innate snobbery. Men tended to be obsessive and wimpish. Women are always the cornerstone of the largely dysfunctional relationships, either because they dominate the men, or because they are willing to forbear their inadequacies. Estuary accents lend working-class 'authenticity' at every turn.
When the BBC lost interest in arts filming, Leigh and his compatriots migrated to cinema; over the subsequent years Leigh’s work noticeably changed. Characterisation became less caricature, more rounded, and what many had seen as his sneering attitude to the working classes, where characters were there to be laughed at rather than with, faded . By the time he made ‘Secrets and Lies’, possibly his greatest film, he had achieved a perfect balance between ‘realism’ and the working out of his own obsessions. Brenda Blethyn stole the show as a single mother whose adoptive daughter seeks her out. But it was a great ensemble piece, sympathetic to all the characters, although Phyllis Logan does give the obligatory tour of her home. Three toilets! Leigh loves to mark characters level of social aspiration; their house, the décor and furnishings, especially the number of toilets they have. Secrets and Lies was one of those films that had everyone buzzing and happy as they left the cinema; it was the film that finally let Leigh make the leap from arthouse to multiplex.
He followed it with 'Career Girls', a film that felt relatively lightweight on first viewing. Two girls, who had shared a house several years before when they were at University, meet up for a weekend in London. It intercuts between how they are now and how they were as this pair of painfully awful grungy students, and therein lies the film’s very enjoyable humour. As the film goes on, coincidence piles on coincidence (even Thomas Hardy would have complained at the plot contrivance) and it becomes apparent that we are watching an allegory on the excesses of late Thatcherism.
Then there was 'Topsy-Turvy', a surprising change of direction with a bio-pic about Gilbert and Sullivan and the writing of the Mikado. Flawless and irresistible, if it had a problem it was that it appealed to the Merchant-Ivory crowd. They of course turned out in their droves for the film that followed, 'All or Nothing' but are unlikely to have enjoyed it; it demanded very different sensibilities of its audience. A microscopic study of a family at breaking point, it was 127 minutes of utter misery, then maybe 30 seconds of happy ending for those who sat it out. It was Leigh at his best, and probably the film to which 'Happy-Go-Lucky' is intended as a riposte. Finally 'Vera Drake', a commercial success but Leigh’s poorest film in a long while.
Leigh’s history is important because his new film not only harks back to earlier work, but is a significant piece in what has become a fairly large jigsaw. It must in part be a response to those who have complained over the years that he only ever has miserable characters in his films. Even those who recognise the absurdity of that perception would have thought any suggestion of a Leigh film loaded to the brim with happiness pretty implausible. Until now, that is. Because 'Happy-Go-Lucky' offers nearly two hours of unrestrained cheerfulness from Poppy, a single 30 year old primary school teacher. She’s not just happy, she’s happy with an unbearable manic intensity. She’s Leigh’s most grotesque screen character yet, and that is saying something if you are familiar with his earlier creations.
The first surprise comes as the film starts. It’s in full ‘scope, and it’s Leigh’s first use of the longer widescreen format. There’s a slight tease for cineastes as he plays with split-screen while the credits role before the picture finally spreads across the entire screen. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope gets the best out of the format, and the picture, filmed to Fuji celluloid rather than any sort of digital media is nothing short of spectacular.
Against the opening credits, Poppy, cycles across Blackfriars Bridge. If we didn’t know that there was a camera car alongside her, we would fear for her safety; she looks everywhere but ahead of her (as do we, hence the split-screen) as she pedals furiously, apparently oblivious of the traffic around her. But there’s worse to come, because once she’s in the bookshop she starts talking, trying to start a conversation of sorts with the man behind the till, and immediately we’re embarrassed by the way she seems so oblivious to the obvious annoyance her laughing and joking causes. I say conversation, but that is one of the things that marks Poppy out; her conversations are one-way affairs, and she rarely engages with anyone sufficiently to see things from their side, as her continuous and intrusive chatter just continues long past the point of rudeness.
Your heart sinks when Poppy announces to her flatmate that she’s booked herself in for driving lessons (unless by now you’re thinking that a serious accident would be no bad thing) since she lacks sufficient concentration span to buckle a seatbelt, let alone get behind the wheel. But it is the driving lessons, and her interaction with her driving instructor Scott that is the core of the film. Tattooed across Scott’s forehead in six inch high letters it says ‘BORDERLINE PSYCHOTIC, DON’T WIND ME UP’. No it doesn’t, but it might as well do. As his inner demons and repressed rage threaten to erupt at any moment, the only person who fails to spot it is Poppy. The audience is almost as stressed as Scott as her constant joking cranks him up right from the off; if he wasn’t so utterly dysfunctional, loaded with tics and neuroses, and racist to boot we’d be sympathising with him. As it is we look on in horror, knowing that one way or another his fuse will blow before the film is out.
At one point Poppy goes to visit a sister who is married, living close to the sea, and in a singularly unrealistic state of pregnancy (her maternity dress bears an astonishing similarity to Bev’s outfit from 'Abigail'). As soon as Poppy arrives along with a sulky younger sister and her flatmate we find ourselves on familiar territory. He's hen-pecked, she’s the snobbish social climber. The one essential, the guided tour of their house is judged to perfection here, stripped away to almost nothing; the downstairs toilet, the patio, and the new table – ‘We only got it this week. Flat pack’. Enough said.
Poppy is apparently a primary school teacher; we even get to see her prepare for, and then take a class. But we don’t believe it. At one point she tells Scott that she’s 30 years old. We don’t believe that either. And that’s the point really, because Poppy isn’t an adult at all. The class we see her take involves the children painting a bird’s face on a paper bag, then all putting them over their heads and flapping their wings. Poppy joins in, and once she puts the bag on she’s indistinguishable from her pupils. She’s a young child, living in her own small world, constantly demanding to be the centre of attention. She has little perception of adult emotions, let alone the misery and danger that exists in the 'real' world.
Funniest moment in the film? There’s a lot to choose from, but I think I’d pick the flamenco dance classes Poppy and her friend go to. The instructor (played by Karina Fernandez) is a somewhat volatile Spanish woman who demands passion from her pupils. At one point, by way of example, she works herself up into a frenzy of overwrought emotion; that is until Poppy’s uncomprehending solicitude suddenly punctures the balloon.
This film is a tour-de-force, a sustained and brutal assault on the audience, almost unwatchable from the off. The cringe factor is so high it leaves you battered and bruised, utterly drained. Those who were drawn to this film through 'Vera Drake' will probably conclude that while the earlier film made some sort of case for legalised abortion, this one makes a far stronger case for strangulation at birth. Those foolish enough to demand ‘realism’ from drama will be utterly mystified. Those who asked Leigh to 'make a happy film for once' have had their bluff quite spectacularly called; I doubt they'll be asking again.
This is not the first time Leigh has made a film that is a difficult viewing experience, with a singularly bleak take on life. 'Happy-Go-Lucky' has serious things to say about the human condition, about the foolishness of our belief in the possibility of happiness. No-one’s happy in this film, although it takes a while to work that out.
A cinematic masterpiece. Recommended.
You may have made it through the film. You’ve certainly made it through my review. So I’m having a draw for an earlier Mike Leigh film on DVD. It’s Region 2, and I’ll cover postage to anywhere within that region’s map. The winner will get a choice; 'All or Nothing' or 'Topsy-Turvy'. To enter the draw just leave a comment here by the end of May, saying which film you’d prefer.