Here is the world according to Johnny, the bilious antihero of Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked. Johnny is a restless drifter on an odyssey through London’s nocturnal underbelly, his feverish ranting a furious response to an alien and indifferent society. “Humanity is just a cracked egg,” he insists, “and the omelet stinks.”
Johnny is Leigh’s most caustic – and hyper-articulate – creation, but he’s reacting to an endemic sadness that forms the emotional backdrop for most of the British writer-director’s nearly two dozen films. Over the past four decades, Leigh has trained his lens on a series of desperate characters, typically working or lower-middle class, as they grapple with family responsibilities, economic pressures and the breakdown of relationships. His films elicit sudden, gut-wrenching glimmers of recognition and yet, as actor Timothy Spall has put it, they focus on men and women “that most other people are thankful not to be.” In this middle ground between identification and detachment, pity and compassion, Leigh reimagines those intimately familiar yet strangely exotic creatures known as “ordinary people.”
Leigh’s latest film is a vital addition to this catalogue of quotidian struggle. Another Year charts four seasons in the life of a married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their fraught interactions with Mary (Lesley Manville), an emotionally unstable friend on a collision course with middle age. The passage of time is the film’s organizing principle and its central theme, a source of both lively comedy and stark pathos. Gerri consoles a patient in the medical center where she works as a therapist: “Change is frightening, isn’t it?” The woman’s stare is blank. “Nothing changes,” she replies.
It’s an observation that has often been made of Leigh’s films, which follow the emotional currents of everyday rituals rather than the streamlined narratives of the Hollywood tradition. In his first film, Bleak Moments (1971), Leigh shoots an entire tea party in silent close-ups, lingering on the characters’ averted gazes to register their clashing personalities and prejudices. Twenty films later, there’s the same granular attunement to social performance as Mary berates anyone who will listen with the miserable details of her car insurance. Nervous glances fill pregnant pauses. Wine glasses empty and refill. Few directors are more attentive to the expressive possibilities of colloquial speech, and yet Leigh’s cinema is above all a cinema of silences, tracing the cracks in our social armor.
Out of these quiet, prosaic exchanges, Leigh builds a panorama worthy of Johnny’s sweeping pronouncements on human frailty. He captures the seemingly glacial pace at which periods in our lives unfold, and the suddenness with which they inexplicably vanish. As Tom and Gerri lie in bed after another night of Mary’s Chardonnay-induced theatrics, their thoughts begin to drift towards their own mortality. “We’re becoming history,” Tom murmurs, stunned by the thought and yet strangely gratified to glimpse the faded outlines of a life well-lived. It’s an unsentimental grace note plucked from the cacophony of everyday life, a moment of such intimacy and candor that it confounds the idea there is anything ordinary about these people at all.
How do you make a film about ordinary people?
Examine the bill of fare at your local art-house cinema and the most common ingredients immediately step up to the plate: the spare, inarticulate dialogue; the everyday rituals of work, school, and domesticity; and the camerawork, usually hand-held, that sticks as close to the characters as a sweaty t-shirt. In a much-debated 2009 essay in The New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott dubbed this style of filmmaking “Neo-neo realism,” linking talented practitioners like Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant) and Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart) to the sidewalk poets of post-war Italian cinema. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has suggested “The Social Drama” might be a more appropriate moniker, criticizing films by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Andre Techiné (The Girl on the Train) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) for emphasizing pseudo-documentary objectivity at the expense of intimately-realized characters. While naming this genre is a murky affair, its most common pitfall is clear: condescension, the patronizing of characters that are typically not of the same class as the filmmakers and their audience.
Mike Leigh avoids this trap by giving his characters an inner life and a sense of agency. In films like Vera Drake (2004), a portrait of an illegal abortion provider in the 1950’s, and Meantime (1984), a look at teenage brothers in the Thatcher years, he distills the flavor of entire eras in British culture but never reduces his protagonists to mere pawns of history. Vera greets the social and economic forces in her life with quiet perseverance; young Mark and Colin respond with varying degrees of cynical detachment. It’s the irreducible individuality of these characters – and not the mere depiction of working class settings – that makes each film a model of socially-engaged cinema.
Leigh develops his characters through a series of one-on-one interviews with his actors, picking and choosing from the traits of real people they know. He then assembles the cast for months of grueling improvisations that form the basis for a script. As Leigh describes it, this unorthodox fusion of craft and contingency, preparation and inspiration, strives to create “the spontaneity of the theater […] at that white-hot moment when the camera is rolling.” It also prevents his stories from slipping into caricature. The actors appear on screen with a lifetime’s worth of hidden desires and emotional wounds rather than the tics and mannerisms of class stereotypes.
Once the camera starts running, Leigh is a remarkably unobtrusive director. When he moves the camera or cuts to a close-up, it is not in the pursuit of retina-roasting reflexivity, but to subtly elucidate an element of the mise-en-scene – a gesture or glance that grants a glimpse into a character’s thoughts and feelings; a kind of wallpaper or item of clothing that speaks volumes about their class and upbringing. In Hard Labour (1973), one of his early films for the BBC, there’s a devastating scene in which a beleaguered mother confesses her sins to an indifferent priest. Leigh frames the woman in a series of claustrophobic close-ups, magnifying her downtrodden features to evoke a stifling atmosphere of emotional entrapment. Leigh’s nuanced evocation of the ties that bind his characters, and the barriers that separate them, is a subtle rebuke to Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion, in a 1987 interview, that “there is no such thing as society.”
The films lose this empirical precision when Leigh abandons his customary understatement. In Secrets and Lies and Career Girls, two films from the mid-90s, he undermines a number of compelling scenes by bombarding the soundtrack with cloying elevator music. In other films, he allows a broadly satirical character to distort the authenticity of the world onscreen: the estate manager in Meantime, with his hippie sermons on the economic symbolism of anthills; or the landlord in Naked, whose debauched exploits could turn the Marquis de Sade a prudish shade of pink.
But these are aberrations. More often than not, Leigh’s films achieve a superb aesthetic aptness. In the closing moments of Another Year, he slowly tracks the camera around Tom and Gerri’s dinner table to linger on a quietly suffering Mary. He holds on her flickering gaze for what feels like an eternity, gradually stripping the sound from the image to amplify her isolation from the happy couples all around her. It’s a near-perfect union of form and content, defying the naturalistic conventions of contemporary realism to hint at the haunting mysteries beneath Mary’s thousand mile stare. After conducting hundreds of interviews with working-class Londoners in the late 1940’s, the sociologist Ferdynand Zweig came to realize
how little is really known about life itself. We can only catch a glimpse from time to time of real life with its constant changes, unexpected turns, enormous variety and richness, but how often do we content ourselves with outworn models, textbooks patterns and artifice clumsily put together for certain analytical purposes which are taken as real.
It is Leigh’s attunement to unspoken nuances – to silences that contain multitudes – that allows the final moments of Another Year to transcend aesthetic models and scale the expressive heights of great cinema.
Life is bleak.
Here is another staple of the art-house diet, and Mike Leigh’s been dishing it up for years. In his skillful hands, audiences around the world have shivered in the damp, asphyxiating gloom of Victorian-era row houses. They have gulped pints of Bitter, the world’s most aptly-named beer, in drab, plywood-enameled pubs. They have huddled in gray, treeless backstreets that still bear the scars of the London Blitz. It is a physical canvas as vivid as David Kynaston’s magisterial history of the country’s post-war years: Austerity Britain.
And yet the human landscape in Leigh’s films couldn’t be more vibrant. He has explored his obsessions with family and class, work and relationships, across a striking range of tonal registers. In Nuts in May (1976), he blends pastoral comedy with acerbic class commentary to recount the misadventures of a yuppie couple on a camping trip. In Topsy Turvy (1999), his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, he balances expansive historical pageantry with an intimate, Cassavetes-worthy meditation on social and theatrical performance. Few directors have the range to make films called Bleak Moments and Life is Sweet (1990) over the course of their careers. Rarer still is a filmmaker who elicits both sentiments in nearly every film.
This is especially true in the realm of cinematic realism. “Reality is a lot larger than what’s in front of your camera,” Richard Brody reminds us, and too many supposedly naturalistic films leave the world around their protagonists blurry and monochromatic. This is in stark contrast to Leigh’s most recent work, which has only widened the frame through which we observe his characters’ lives. In Happy Go Lucky (2008), he pits a relentlessly upbeat protagonist and an exuberant color scheme against typically riveting scenes of quotidian discontent. In Another Year, Tom and Gerri once again serve as the relatively stable, moderately happy sun to a bedraggled constellation of friends and family members. This recent turn towards the bright side hasn’t obscured Leigh’s critical vision: humanity is as much a “cracked egg” in these films as it was in Naked. By serving it sunny side up, Leigh merely underscores the vastness and variety of the world around his protagonists.
With the arrival of Carl, Tom and Gerri’s brooding bulldog of a nephew, Another Year grows increasingly somber in its final act. Carl is an archetypal “angry young man,” wavering between guilty deference and blinding fury in the harried aftermath of a family funeral. But this is no douche ex machina: Carl’s appearance only complicates the entanglements in the plot, steeping the film’s emotional – and visual – palette in lustrous shades of mid-winter gray. When he makes his final, door-slamming exit, Tom and Gerri’s cheerful dispositions begin to seem like just another defense mechanism, as much a part of the human repertoire of survival as Mary’s neurotic self-pity or Johnny’s condescending rage. Carl leaves the frame but he never really leaves the film.
As I watched Carl fade from the screen, I found myself thinking back to the closing moments of High Hopes (1988), Leigh’s hilarious and poignant snapshot of late 80’s London. On a gray winter morning, the film’s protagonists, Cyril and Shirley, bring Cyril’s mother on to the roof of their apartment building. As the characters pause to survey the city’s skyline, Leigh raises his camera to register a striking panorama of human endeavor. Like Carl’s furious departure, Johnny’s dyspeptic monologues, and Leigh’s entire catalogue of hope and despair, it’s a moment that offers the exhilarating, irretrievable sensation that we know where we stand in the world.