I did not accomplish much during the Coronavirus lockdown. I did not succeed in losing weight, getting the closets organized or writing a memoir. My ratio of Door Dash meals to home-cooked meals was about 3 to 1. But I did do one thing of lasting value - I watched every feature film Mike Leigh ever made. It was a labor of love.
I will happily tell anyone who asks that Mike Leigh is my favorite living film director. I love his humanity, his affection for the oddballs and cast-offs of the world, and the mysterious way in which he makes even the most mundane aspects of ordinary people's lives so completely fascinating and endlessly rewatchable. His films are often political even when the subject matter is not, always informed by the restless, angry moral conscience of a dedicated leftist. Sometimes he is excessive - the villians are cartoonishly villainous, the ridiculous people not merely ridiculous but grotesque. But more often, he is empathic and compassionate in drawing the details of his characters' lives.
Leigh is not so much a storyteller as he is an observer. His films are character-driven rather than plot-driven with characters who are often sad, lonely, or struggling to make ends meet. But Leigh always takes time to give their lives a greater dimension - to show us where they work, how they interact with their families, and what they do to let off steam.
For me, Leigh's films are a welcome corrective to the cozy Anglophilia of the whole PBS/Downton Abbey/Acorn TV experience that dominates most Americans' ideas of Great Britain. Both as traveler and as a cinephile, I soon get weary of gazing at the furnishings of 'great houses' or watching quirky provincial characters sip tea and solve mysteries. I always long to know more about how ordinary people in other countries live their day-to-day lives, what worries them and what brings them joy. Leigh's films have given me an authentic sense of that experience in the UK.
Famously, Leigh starts each film not with a finished script, but with a general premise. He chooses his cast and then they work together in long sessions of improvisation to discover and define the characters and the details of their lives - and from the process, the actual script is created. This fascinates me. First of all, it requires a lengthy and intense commitment for the actors. But it also sounds like a wonderful, rewarding and egalitarian way for an actor to work, to have some stake in creating their character and contributing to the film's overall vision. And apparently the actors would agree, since so many of them work with Leigh over and over again, to the point where he's essentially formed a reliable repertory company. Among the supremely talented actors who regularly show up in his films: Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Allison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Dorothy Atkinson, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and Martin Savage. And the list grows continually.
Over the past few months I finally filled in the gaps in my viewing experience of Leigh's work and also spent happy hours re-visiting those of his films I'd already come to love. Ranking these films in order of preference is probably a specious and pointless exercise - even the worst of these films is infinitely better than so many other directors have to offer. But such an exercise satisfies my left-brain-dominant need to organize things and put them in order. And the rankings are unapologetically subjective, but I'm always to open to civil, respectful debate and challenges in the comments thread.
A caveat: this includes only Leigh's theatrically released full-length films; as such, it is not wholly representative of his career. He is a prodigious playwright and a creator of numerous television films as well. But for an American, his feature films are by far the most accessible examples of his work, and so I have limited myself to those. (For now...)
13. Naked (1993)
There was a strong feminist outcry against this film at the time of its release, and I am now adding my voice to theirs. Despite its generally enthusiastic critical reception and spectacular showing at Cannes (where David Thewlis received the Best Actor prize and Leigh won Best Director), I find Naked to be overwrought and disturbing.
Thewlis' role of Johnny is an actor's dream: a manic, drug-addled street philosopher whose thoughts and observations are so rapid and literate and urgent that he necessarily becomes the energy force that drives the film. And Thewlis is indeed dazzling; the performance ultimately feels more like an extended jazz improvisation than a straightforward acting role, and Thewlis maintains the unrehearsed quality of that improvisation to the end. But Johnny is an ugly and conniving character as well. The film opens on him raping a young woman in Manchester then fleeing to London where he inveigles his way into the home of a former girlfriend and her flatmate, the latter of whom is joining him in pill-popping and rough sex mere minutes after meeting him.
The women in this film are pathetic doormats who succumb far too easily to Johnny's dubious charms; this is, for Leigh, uncharacteristically mean and dismissive. It's as if no one else in the film is allowed to have any depth or personality so that Thewlis can be the show pony. (Or no woman, anyway. Even Peter Wight as the security guard who tries to make a real connection with Thewlis is allowed to have some interesting dimensions.) And the introduction of a predatory, coked-up landlord who terrorizes his female renters only adds to that unsavory dynamic of women as ciphers and victims who orbit around pathologically charismatic men.
12. Life is Sweet (1990)
In a film filled with loveable screw-ups and misfits, the characters played by Timothy Spall and Jane Horrocks are oddly repellant. Spall's buffoonish, Edith Piaf-obsessed would-be restauranteur is a much nastier caricature than I ever expected to find in a Mike Leigh film. The scene in which he drunkenly destroys his failed eatery (the "trés exclusive" Regrette Rien) is almost unwatchable. Horrocks, for her part, doesn't so much play a character as perform an elaborately overcalculated acting exercise. She's all tics and twitches and painfully strident line readings, but with a hollowness where a recognizably human vulnerability should be.
There are some lovely moments to be found here. The sweet, easy-going chemistry between Allison Steadman and Jim Broadbent - a relentlessly cheerful, long-married couple intent on making the best of things - and a shattering, climactic confrontation between Steadman and Horrocks that almost redeems the latter's character are chief among them. But the lingering aftertaste of those two grotesque characterizations overwhelms the film's quieter charms.
11. Peterloo (2017)
When I first saw Peterloo, I eagerly embraced its moral anger and its story's obvious parallels to contemporary injustices, even naming it one of the 40 best films of the last decade. Sadly, a repeat viewing has forced me to admit that, despite its very good intentions, this is just not the movie I remembered it to be.
This history of a little-remembered massacre of striking mill workers (dubbed "Peterloo" for taking place in St. Peter's Square in Manchester) proceeds with a great deal of back-and-forth between intimate family scenes, political meetings where the mill workers are rallied to strike for decent wages, and glimpses of the oppressors in the upper class registering their horror that workers would demand anything better than the paltry wage and grueling work hours they already have.
With its abundance of grandiloquent political speeches and expository details shoehorned into ordinary conversations, Peterloo places strenuous demands on the attention span of a 21st century audience; unlike most reviewers, however, I don't consider that a flaw. Where it falls seriously short is in its strange lack of escalating tension as the day of the strike/massacre approaches. Leigh's weakness as a storyteller works against him here. The events leading to Peterloo demand a traditional story arc, and this collection of admittedly well-shaped vignettes don't build on each other to create a forward momentum. The massacre scene itself is disjointed and ineffectively chaotic. It's as if Leigh couldn't bring himself to show the us the full, bloody horror of the carnage, so he cuts around to individual vignettes within the mêlée and somehow makes it all seem less awful in the process.
Also unfortunate is Leigh's choice to turn the upper class oppressors into Villians with a Capital V. They're grossly overstated caricatures of evil. Either Leigh doesn't trust us to figure out who the bad guys are without putting obvious sign posts in every five minutes or his rage at the senselessness of this episode in history overcame any impulse on his part to show restraint. Either way, this choice doesn't work.
In spite of all that, however, I did rather like the penultimate scene in which a hideously bloated Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny in a fat suit and artfully applied jowls) receives a report of the massacre while being fed sugared jelly candies by his fawning, desiccated mistress. This scene, at least, provided the perfect horrible/ridiculous characterization of a ruling class whose indifference allowed the Peterloo massacre to proceed.
10. High Hopes (1988)
High Hopes has a scrappy, scattershot energy that's amiable enough to breeze you past a few rough spots. Leigh sets his comedy in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of former council houses. It's no surprise that the most likable characters are a young leftie couple in a ramshackle flat (Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis) and Davis' elderly mother (Edna Dore) who stubbornly refuses to leave her council house even as insufferably pretentious upper-middle-class couples start to fill in the block
It's also no surprise that the upwardly mobile characters are broadly drawn cartoons of clueless unearned privilege, but some work better than others. Lesley Manville and David Bamber are riotously funny as Dore's new neighbors, even if their scenes feel as though they were spliced in from an updated Noel Coward farce. But Davis' sister (Heather Tobias), who obviously married up and is intent on flaunting it, is a screeching, hysterical harpy who makes Jane Horrocks' character in Life is Sweet look like a woman on a heavy dose of Xanax by comparison. The tonal shifts can be a little jarring, but every time we return to quiet, intimate scenes between Davis and Sheen, the film finds its sweet, goofy heart again.
9. Bleak Moments (1971)
My initial reaction to this film was one of frustration, and not just because I was watching a low-quality upload on YouTube (the only place you can currently watch Bleak Moments.) But then I find few things as frustrating - in life, as well as in films - as listening to people talk past and around each other without ever really saying what's on their minds. So I'm probably not the best audience for a film filled with emotionally stunted characters who talk a lot but never manage to say what they really want. No one here has a breakthrough moment where they finally let their feelings out so that they get closer to or more honest with someone they care about. On some level I admired that refusal on Leigh's part to grant us a tidy resolution. But on a deeper level, I craved that kind of catharsis.
Even so, I can admit that Leigh's debut film is accomplished and promising, with an especially fine performance by Ann Raitt as an attractive but lonely young woman who tries and fails to form genuine connections with people. She cares for a developmentally disabled sister, tolerates a chatty co-worker, attempts a friendship with a scruffy, guitar-strumming lodger and tries like hell to get a romantic relationship going with a man who is clearly attracted to her but has no idea how to talk to her. It's hard to watch all this without thinking "What's wrong with these people? She's lovely - don't they get it?" Raitt radiates intelligence and deep yearning throughout and, despite my initial misgivings, I have to admit that some scenes stayed lodged in my brain for hours after I watched it.
8. Career Girls (1997)
Probably the most neglected of Leigh's films, and unfairly so. Career Girls is a slight, agreeable film of modest ambition. Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman play former college roommates who are reunited for a weekend in London; the film alternates between flashbacks to their days as scruffy, good-hearted but socially awkward university students and the present day where they have evolved into polished, poised - but no less good-hearted - professional women. If the film has a flaw, it's the abundance of coincidences that pile up in one 48-hour period, allowing the two women to randomly encounter every significant person in their shared past. Steadman and Cartlidge have a lovely, natural chemistry together and they're fun to 'hang out' with.
Cartlidge, who also appeared in Naked and Topsy Turvy, tragically died just five years later at the age of 41; you can read Leigh's lovely remembrance of her and their work together on Career Girls here.
7. Secrets and Lies (1996)
Secrets and Lies is far and away the Mike Leigh film best known to Americans - the highest grossing of his films at the US box office by a very large margin. And it was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. So you might already be aware of its main plot in which a lonely, disheveled woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is unexpectedly reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption 27 years earlier (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). And that daughter, named Hortense, happens to be black.
I recall that 'big reveal" being a bit of a big deal back in 1996, and it's the kind of twist that probably made the film more interesting and accessible to American audiences at the time. Seen again in 2020, this plot twist feels a bit gimmicky and underdeveloped. We never find out how Hortense feels about discovering she has a white mother, nor do we learn much of anything else about her apart from the fact that she is an optometrist whose adoptive mother has recently died. Jean-Baptiste is restrained and dignified, apparently so all the drama in the film can be about the white people. Also, Cynthia's horror when she remembers Hortense's father and her refusal to talk about him suggests a traumatic experience, probably a rape - and that's another plot point that, quite rightly, won't sit well with a 2020 audience.
But none of us were particularly 'woke' in the 90s, not even Leigh apparently, and there are many commendable facets to this story as well. Cynthia and Hortense quickly develop a genuinely warm relationship. Hortense finds Cynthia to be funny and good company, whereas most of Cynthia's family finds her whiny, needy and (least charitably of all) a "slag." Cynthia becomes happier and finds meaning in her life, but reconciling this newfound daughter with rest of her family relationships proves to be more complicated. If Bleak Moments denied us a moment of cathartic truth-telling, Secrets and Lies provides one for the ages. In the climactic birthday party scene, all the titular secrets kept and lies told by Cynthia's family are exposed and addressed openly, amidst copious tears and many sharply raised voices. Ultimately, though, everyone ends up happier - emotionally cleansed and closer to one another than ever before.
Secrets and Lies marks a turning point from Leigh's earlier work in a couple of significant ways. Up to this point in his career, Timothy Spall had specialized in playing weird, eccentric characters (in Leigh's films included - see the above entry for Life is Sweet). Here Spall played Blethyn's sensitive, generous, unspectacularly decent brother, and it changed the course of his career. Also Spall's wife (Phyllis Logan, better known to American audiences as Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes), is initially shown as status-seeking, materialistic and obsessed with decorating her home; she's brittle and unlikable, but thankfully not ridiculous. But she is fully redeemed once she shares her own heartache and sense of failure in the climactic party scene. It's welcome evidence of a new generosity on Leigh's part towards a character he once would have ridiculed mercilessly.
Cutaways to Spall at work in his photography studio, with their montages of the people who come in for photo shoots, are great fun to watch - particularly to spot the Mike Leigh regulars who make cameo appearances (among them are Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and Leigh's then-wife, Allison Steadman).
6. Mr. Turner (2014)
Exquisitely shot after a painterly fashion by Leigh's longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, this unconventional biopic of the artist J. W. W. Turner is easily the most visually sumptuous of the director's films. Timothy Spall's portrayal of Turner - all grunts, grimaces and servant-groping - is not particularly engaging or easy to watch, but that's probably the point. There's a lot of meticulously rendered period detail here, but ultimately, Mr. Turner remains as impenetrable and self-contained as its titular subject. There's a chilly, detached veneer over this entire film; it's not only the most beautiful but also the most intellectual of Leigh's films and its inspires more respect than love. I give Leigh endless props, however, for sidestepping every cliché of the standard 'tortured artist' biopic, and allowing us to see the complexity and difficulty of Turner without ever quite telling us how to feel about him. Instead, Turner's paintings themselves are allowed to speak for him.
5. Happy Go Lucky (2008)
"This is a deceptively lightweight and free-wheeling film that actually touches on profound truths about our capacities for happiness and overcoming personal loss and pain." That's what I wrote about Happy Go Lucky after seeing it in 2008, and I stand by that observation today.
Poppy Cross, the film's heroine (magnificently played by Sally Hawkins) is more than a beautifully realized, infinitely complex character; she also proves to be a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer. What you see in her, how you react to her, is like to reveal how good or bad you think the world is and how much you believe you can do to change it. It's not just that watching Poppy in action forces you to identify whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person; it goes deeper than that. She forces you to think through your entire worldview.
Through Poppy, Leigh explores what happens when a perpetually cheerful person - in whom no darkness resides - collides with the less cheerful remainder of humanity. That includes everyone from a cranky bookstore clerk to a schizophrenic homeless man to a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) whose bigotry and misogynistic rage becomes a little more apparent with each subsequent lesson. Poppy's compulsive need to break into a comedy routine whenever confronted with another person's bad mood can be exhausting, even for us the viewers; fortunately, Hawkins also finds compensating layers of warmth and compassion in her character as well.
The scenes between her and Marsan are perfectly realized. Their final ride together is heart-stopping; it culminates in Poppy's' sobering realization of her instructor's emotional pain and potential for violence. Marsan quivers with inexpressible anguish while Hawkins wordlessly conveys both Poppy's sadness for him and her own sadness at seeing how her relentless buoyancy is perceived by someone who is truly and deeply unhappy.
4. All or Nothing (2002)
Phil (Timothy Spall) and Penny (Lesley Manville) - long married and struggling to make ends meet - have lost their joy in life and in each other. Penny, perpetually stressed and angry, wears her resentment like a old, comfortable jacket, no longer even aware of how bitterly she speaks to her husband. Phil moves warily through life - hunched over as if expecting to be beaten at any moment, his downcast eyes watery and sad. Their son, Rory (a very young, almost unrecognizable James Corden) is a massively fat , foul-mouthed lay-about who verbally abuses Penny and does little but move from the sofa to the dinner table and back, while their daughter Rachel (Allison Garland) is nervously watchful, but keeps her feelings resolutely to herself.
Believe me, I've read the preceding paragraph numerous times and I realize how depressing this all sounds. Of all the films on this list, All or Nothing is the hardest sell based on the story alone. But here is where Leigh's skills as an observer and a collaborator with his actors prove transcendent. These characters feel so real, the performances so transparent and lived-in, that you can't help but be emotionally connected to them and invested in their stories. And be assured, we do get some occasional moments of comic relief. When Penny's wisecracking best pal (Ruth Sheen) belts out a show-stopping rendition of "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" on karaoke night at the pub, it almost makes you forget everything you've seen up to that point.
If that's not enough to interest you, let me just assure you of this: there is a happy ending. When the chatty French lady shows up as a passenger in Phil's cab - carrying an enormous vase and asking him about his life and his family with genuine interest - she almost mystically becomes the catalyst for the film's hopeful resolution. Trust me on this.
3. Topsy Turvy (1999)
"My object was to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real. If I just had been interested in period, I could have done poverty in the East End in the 1880s....I thought it more interesting to subvert the chocolate box subject itself."
That's Leigh on his decision to tell the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan revived their stagnating career in light opera by creating The Mikado. And while there's no ass-scratching per se, Leigh manages to cover a whole lot of territory we wouldn't expect to find in a frothy musical biopic: Sullivan's merry trip to a Parisian brothel; Gilbert's depressive personality and his apparently sexless marriage (and the toll it takes on his long-suffering wife); the comic lead's secret morphine addiction and the leading lady's 'little problem' with alcohol.
When a director announces an intention to subvert a well-worn movie trope, that subversion is all too often informed by a detached cynicism (see the career of Robert Altman). Topsy Turvy, by happy contrast, celebrates rather than satirizes the world of 19th century light opera. Sure, Leigh delivers some almost lurid backstories, but not at the expense of recreating the silly pleasures of Gilbert and Sullivan's best work. The staged, full-length musical numbers (from both The Mikado and an earlier G&S opera, The Sorcerer) are presented in vivid color with hammy, period-appropriate acting intact and are great, delicious fun. They're all the more delightful for having seen the rehearsals, costume fittings, coaching and fussing that preceded and shaped the actual performances.
Critic Amy Taubin gave the best summation of Topsy Turvy in the liner notes to Criterion's DVD. I cannot say it better (and I have tried!): "It is both an anomaly among the films of Mike Leigh and, contrary as it may seem, a Rosetta Stone. One the one hand, it is....a far cry from the bittersweet, realistic films about contemporary working class life for which he is known. On the other hand, it is an examination of the creative process and the collaborative work involved in putting on a show that mirrors his own methods as a filmmaker."
2. Vera Drake (2004)
Imelda Staunton's impeccably played Vera Drake is so full of good cheer, she even smiles while she's dusting furniture, as if it's her favorite thing to do. Amidst the gloom of working class post-war London, she is a beacon of kindness and warmth to her family and neighbors - always looking to help, coyly playing matchmaker between her shy daughter and the lonely mechanic who lives in the flat upstairs. Among her good deeds is "helping girls out," her delicate euphemism for "helping pregnant girls to not be pregnant anymore." She perform abortions in a brisk, efficient manner using a rubber hose and a concoction of castor oil and carbolic soap; we witness several such procedures being administered within the first half-hour of the film. Significantly, though, Vera, never receives so much as a shilling for her services (although the conniving friend who refers her to girls in trouble does take a fee, offering Vera only some questionable deals on rationed supplies like sugar and tea in return.)
The miracle of Vera Drake is that Leigh takes a highly charged, potentially political subject and presents it as intensely personal, character-driven drama. And it's all the more powerful for that choice. We aren't explicitly shown which characters are good or bad; there are no broad, caricatured performances to be found here (save, perhaps Vera's status-seeking sister-in-law, a minor character). We don't even find out for sure why Vera agrees to perform abortions in the first place. A subplot involving an upper middle class girl (Sally Hawkins) who easily obtains a safe abortion is presented without comment. The officers who arrest Vera (after one of her procedures goes wrong and nearly kills a young woman) seem ambivalent about executing their duties and genuinely concerned for her, though they put her through every interrogation and procedural that the law requires. Even the judge who hands Vera an unexpectedly severe prison sentence seems measured and almost reasonable (a welcome contrast with the Dickensian villians presiding over the courts in Peterloo).
What we're finally left with is a deep sense of how many lives have been shattered by the time Vera is sent away. The closing shot of Vera's family, sitting silently and forlornly around her kitchen table, resonates long after the closing credits have rolled away.
1. Another Year (2010)
Why are some people able to create happy, fulfilled lives for themselves while others remain lonely and miserable to the end of their days?
That's a question that Mike Leigh has revisited constantly throughout his career. In Another Year, his greatest and most profound meditation on that puzzle, no easy answers are proffered. Both the happy and the sad characters appear to have come from the same social class and have received more or less equal educational and economic opportunities. Yet some land in comfortable lives with happy, companionable marriages, while one has an apparently bad marriage and no happiness in life whatsoever. One has a solid career but no significant personal relationships, and yet another can't seem to master any area of her life. Yet you can feel Leigh's love and compassion for all of them in every frame.
Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a seemingly ideal husband and wife who've enjoyed a good life of travel, parenthood and professional success. Their cozy home is a welcome refuge for their single friends, most notably Mary (Lesley Manville) who is fifty-something and working overtime to put an upbeat, fun-loving face on a life that's become messy and unbearably lonely. Mary is all tight skirts, low necklines, excessive white wine consumption and inappropriately flirty behavior (particularly with Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son). Her idea of getting her life on track is to "get up really early this weekend, sort my winter clothes, put them into plastic bags and stuff them under my bed," a plan she'll likely be too hungover to execute. Manville, in a somewhat broad but ultimately heartbreaking performance, is the chaotic whirlwind in every one of her scenes, in stark contrast with Tom and Gerri's low-key warmth and domesticity.
Another Leigh regular, Peter Wight, makes a memorably heartbreaking appearance as Tom and Gerri's pal from university days. Apparently never married and now surrounded by much younger people at work, he stuffs down his sadness with excessive portions of lager and crisps, and gets weepy and angry by turns after a few too many.
I've often said that not much happens in Another Year, but the little that does occur is positively fascinating to watch. That's down to the superlative performances of the actors. Sheen, Manville and Broadbent are three of Leigh's most frequently cast repertory players and here all three are working at their peak of their craft. And yet while it's clear the actors have done their homework and fleshed out their characters to a fine point, it doesn't feel like you're watching actors at work - it feels like you're eavesdropping on real people in their actual lives.
You can see the whole history of Tom and Gerri's marriage in just a exchanged glance or a couple of tossed-off asides between Sheen and Broadbent. A two-second cutaway to a reaction shot from Broadbent after Manville makes one of her inappropriately flirty wisecracks and we know exactly how little Tom really cares for Mary, that he's merely tolerating his wife's friendship with her. And these subtle layers aren't just limited to the performances of the main players. In Oliver Maltman's performance as Tom and Gerri's son, we can see that he's appropriated his father's tendency to lighten potentially sad situations with a well-timed quip or joke, but he hasn't developed the same core of compassion that informs his father's comic tendencies. His behavior to Mary sometimes borders on cruelty. And I think we can reasonably chalk that up to the son's growing up in relative privilege, while his father came from a hardscrabble, working class background and has known some actual suffering in life. But those details are telegraphed through the performances rather than explicitly spelled out.
In truth, something does happen in Another Year. But it's Mary who has the tragic story arc, while Tom and Gerri's marriage continues on the same path of contented ritual from season to season. Watching Mary hit rock bottom is devastating; seeing her take very tentative, shaky steps towards a healthier life in the film's final chapter will not entirely relieve your sadness for her. But you will come away in awe of Lesley Manville, who very well may be the greatest actor in Mike Leigh's formidable company of players.