Wednesday, 30 April 2008


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.


Spaniel said...

Or perhaps it's just a bad film, devoid of truth or insight. Mike Leigh is one of that rarest of species, the Great British Auteur, but his pre-eminence seems to have placed him beyond criticism. Leigh is a middle-class film-maker making films for middle class people; nothing wrong with that, but we should at least be honest about it. His work should be assessed on its actual merit, by how true his vision seems to his domestic audience rather than by its success on the festival circuit. Happy Go-Lucky is an illustration of how bankrupt Leigh's devised method has become, and is about as accurate a study of British society as Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Stephen said...

I'm not quite sure how you would define truth of vision in relation to a domestic audience, Spaniel. I paid my money to see this at a cinema, certainly not at any film festival. A good percentage of the audience were admittedly middle class; they were the ones who were audibly expressing disappointment with the film on their way out.
I doubt if it's what you mean at all, but you appear to be saying that Mike Leigh should be making films that are accurate studies of British society for a middle class audience who recognise the truth of his vision. That's something of a straitjacket, isn't it?
If there's one thing Leigh can't be accused of here, it's that of pandering to the expectations of his audience, middle class or not; quite the opposite.

Spaniel said...

I am struck by the generally enthusiastic tone of the print reviews for this film which - unlike your own view of it - take its aims and achievements at face value. Your view of Poppy as a calculatedly unbearable conception is certainly novel but Mike Leigh's own comments (in this month's Sight and Sound) seem to indicate that he sees her as far more straightforward and agreeably positive.
Leigh says: "The point about the teachers of this world, the Poppies, is that everywhere there are Poppies being positive and patient and caring and lovng and teaching kids. We're in a terminal world, right, and there is every reason to be deeply pessimistic. But people are out there on the ground getting on with it." Yet, the scenes in school with the troubled pupil are offensively facile, the presence of the unhappy child merely a pretext for the romance between Poppy and the cardboard social worker, the most cloying screen couple this side of Truly Madly Deeply.

Elsewhere, Leigh has stated that film "should aspire to the condition of documentary" - and Leigh's much-vaunted improvisational method is often cited as an unique means of exploring character. To this end, Eddie Marsan's portrayal of Scott is the film's one saving grace; yet Marsan's sterling contribution only demonstrates that some actors are better at creating character from scratch than others. And Leigh's method puts him at the mercy of his actors to an unusual extent. There is a difference between realism and truth: as Orson Welles said of James Cagney, he does everything that screen actors are not supposed to do, the opposite of realism, but the effect is of total truth. By the same token, it could be said that in, say, Nuts in May, Roger Sloman and Alison Steadman are not realistic but they are believable. But, Marsan aside, nothing in Happy-Go-Lucky rings true.

Your reading of the film as a sophisticated critique of the pursuit of happiness is interesting but, I believe, quite wrong. I think it is clear that Leigh admires Poppy. So if your view doesn't hold, then what is left? Viewed as a confection, Happy-Go-Lucky might be considered as either charming or irritating depending on your taste, but its smug pretensions to a kind of social realism (Ken Loach filmed as a sitcom) and air of Blairite complacency render it utterly grotesque. The (imperfectly-made) point I was trying to make in my earlier post is that I sense a tendency amongst the broadsheet critics to toe a line on Leigh: this film is being talked up to an absurd extent. I think that this may be because he is so acclaimed abroad, a sense in which they are getting behind one of our very few successful film exports. But I've spoken to a number of people who hate this film as deeply as I do, and I think that a cool re-appraisal of Leigh is long overdue.

Stephen said...

Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. DH Lawrence

Spaniel, you disappoint me, falling so deeply into the intentional fallacy trap.

Stephen said...

Spaniel, your comments demand a more substantial response than the one I posted last night (correct as that was). I have few enough visitors here as it is, without upsetting the ones I get.

'Leigh is a middle-class film-maker making films for middle class people; nothing wrong with that, but we should at least be honest about it.' If that were so of Leigh, and I'm not entirely certain it is, then surely it is considerably more so of Sight & Sound, very much a magazine written by middle class journalists for a middle class readership. So I'm not sure what to make of your comment. Why is class any sort of issue? Since presumably you have seen the film and read Sight & Sound I am inclined to thinking that you must therefore be middle class. But you appear at the same time in some way to resent the middle classes. Your belief that truth of vision to a domestic audience should be the criteria for critical judgement is of course a well defined position. If you wish to engage in a Marxist dialectic all you have to do is ask.

You say that Leigh's work should be assessed on it's actual merit, and that is what I attempted to do. I read only one review of Happy-Go-Lucky before watching the film and writing about it, and since you found me through the link there, you will know that was the one by Ms Baroque, whose conclusions were of course somewhat different to my own. You are kind to say that my reading of the film is interesting, but I am surprised that you should even comment on the novelty of my critique. It is hardly surprising that it is novel given that it is entirely my own.

Your own position is somewhat paradoxical; you lambast the broadsheet critics for their lack of judgement with regard to this film, but then go on to unquestioningly regard the premise from which they work (that the film's aims and achievements should be taken at face value) as the correct one. It is you who fails to assess the film on it’s own merit; it is utterly irrelevant to any reading of Happy-Go-Lucky whether Mike Leigh admires Poppy or not unless the evidence for that assertion lies in the film rather than Sight & Sound and you offer none. Many of your judgements seem as unoriginal as those of the established critics, and appear to be lifted directly from Ms Baroque’s witty and very positive review; if I were her I would be inclined to sue for plagiarism.

This exchange here has happily shown that the film does indeed ring true; surely I am Poppy, happy to enjoy the film because I have done no more than respond to what I have seen on the screen, while you are Scott, engaged in some ill defined struggle against the smug complacency of the middle classes (a condition you find at the heart of Leigh's film) and somewhat wound up by the pleasure others might take from a film that you and ‘several other people’ hate. Could that be why you respond so positively to Eddie Marsan's performance?

Ms Baroque said...

OH dear, you two! What are ya like!

Stephen said...

Nothing wrong with expressing diverging opinions, Ms Baroque. Spaniel's contribution here has been very much appreciated,and I hope he returns.

And thank you too for your own review; despite your conclusions you offered an excellent recommendation. Only one point to take issue with; your reference to whimsical sex scenes, Unless we were sent a censored version out here, I failed to spot any sex scenes whatever. We came close at one point and my interest picked up; I had been debating in my head most of the film whether Poppy would actually concentrate on the task in hand for once, but Leigh cut away just as I was about to find out. Other than that, and the spoiler with the stockings, you were spot on.

Spaniel said...

This discussion could get ugly, so I won't prolong it - except to point out that I actually saw the film with the esteemed Ms Baroque, and our ensuing discussions fed both her blog entry and my posts here.

Stephen said...

I suspected as much.

I hope I haven't given offence; I'm not as dyspeptic as I might appear. I've found your comments most stimulating; you may be interested in my political blog.

Which DVD would you like if you win the draw? :)

Spaniel said...

No, no, not offended. I'll go for 'Topsy Turvy', I've not seen that one.

Stephen said...

Good choice, you'll enjoy it. You've clocked up a lot of entries, so you'll probably win!

As an aside, maybe you'll allow me to say that I'm working class, and have never once felt condescended to or excluded from Mike Leigh's films, some of which I enjoy very much, and also that I really have enjoyed your contribution to a lively discussion; I know that sometimes people misread me as being sarcastic but it's not my intention.