A Place for Everybody
Looking back over Mike Leigh’s work, over a film career that started more than thirty five years ago with Bleak Moments, and three decades later gave us his first period film, Topsy Turvy, we might wonder what ties his work together. What gives us so strong an impression of a Mike Leigh film if it can incorporate the inner city desperation of Meantime and Naked, the pastoral jauntiness of Nuts in May, as well as the period possibilities in Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake? Perhaps the consistency lies in the way his characters gravitate between two poles – busyness on the one hand, inertia on the other. This is Heidegger’s freneric inertia meeting Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation within a very British context, as the universal meets the specific.
In Leigh’s introductory note to the published Topsy Turvy script, he says of the film’s subject matter, Gilbert and Sullivan: “I have always been fascinated not only by their personalities but by the ways in which they and their collaborators fought to produce such harmonious, delightful and profoundly trivial material.” Here Leigh is suggesting not so much the usual theatrical triumph over adversity, as purpose over torpor, of doing anything over nothing. William Schwenck Gilbert may produce play after play without much originality or insight, but he never allows himself to be weighed down by too much self-criticism, or, unlike his partner Arthur Sullivan, delusions of grandeur. This semi-meaningful perkiness is echoed in other Leigh characters: particularly Andy in Life is Sweet, a chef who wants to start his own mobile food business, and Maurice in Secrets and Lies, who runs a photographic shop in London. All three characters are busy married men with inertial problems waiting in the wings. For Andy the problem concerns an anorexic daughter; in Secrets and Lies Maurice’s wife is unable to have children and sits around or lies in bed suffering from severe, mood altering cramps. In Topsy Turvy the domestic problem is apparently nothing too important – Gilbert’s wife Kitty constantly attends to her husband’s needs with barely a murmur – but Leigh gives her perhaps the key scene in the film. After a successful premier of the Mikado, as the film nears its close, she sits up in bed, dressed in her nightgown, and talks about the performance. Gilbert, sitting dressed and perched on the edge of the bed, informs her that “there’s something inherently disappointing about success.” Kitty replies that no one would deny he deserves his moment of glory, and Gilbert retorts, “I know my limitations.” The irony seems to be that he does and he doesn’t. He knows that he knocks off quaint entertainments; what he seems oblivious to are his wife’s needs. As she sits up in bed, with Gilbert sitting dressed beside her, we may notice this small four poster bed, with its curtains folded back, resembling the front of a stage. This is one show Gilbert has failed to get right. Lest we’re in any doubt, the childless Kitty goes on to suggest he write a play about a “young and beautiful heroine…who grows old and plain.” Here we see the busy at odds with, even creating, the inertia in another.
Kitty, though, is just one of a number of Leigh’s passive females, just one of half a dozen women he has created who have disappeared inside themselves, who are unable to function as individuals and are reliant on the say so of their masculine betters. There is of course Candice Marie in Nut in May, always wondering about doing the right thing, and assuming her husband Keith is the person to tell her exactly what that would be. Keith organises their ten day trip to Devon with the precision of a battle commander: meals are planned a day in advance, including the lunchtime treat of raw mushrooms, onions and nut roast for dinner, and cocoa for bedtime. No less pre-ordained is their travel itinerary. A closed off road forces them to take a detour, with Keith irritatingly stating: “it spoils the schedule – I had planned to take forty five minutes along that road, and now we’re going to be late.” We’re in little doubt that if, as that master of marital discord John Updike once said, “every marriage consists of an aristocrat and a peasant. Of a teacher and a learner,” Keith’s the aristo in this instance. As with Kitty near the end of Topsy Turvy, we might well wonder whether Candice Marie will collapse under her husband’s oppressiveness, or manage to crawl out from under her husband’s insensitivities and strictures.
After all, she is in danger of ending up like the most obviously adrift wife in Leigh’s work, Barbara in Meantime. Here Barbara is in many ways diametrically opposed to Candice Marie and miles away from Kitty. Where Candice Marie is the guitar playing, woolly jumper wearing vegetarian, and Kitty a wealthy bourgeois wife, Barbara buys into lower middle-class upward mobility. As she wanders around her house, trying to create the perfect world her hard-working husband can come home to, we see a woman crumbling, unable to sustain a sense of self when so obviously attending to another’s needs. At the end of the film she polishes off a bottle of spirits, sits slumped in the corner of the bedroom, and refuses to make her husband’s dinner.
However, if Kitty, Candice Marie and Barbara share a sense of futility in a relationship where they’re clearly not the dominant partners, some might say it is still a better place to be than that of the apparently more isolated youthful characters in Meantime, Life is Sweet, Naked and Career Girls. But, then again, where the married women seem inertial out of lost pride, or at least some kind of accepted inferiority, the young characters are inertial out of holding onto their pride. In Meantime, Mark’s intransigence leaves him outside any familial affection. While his mentally slow brother, Colin, seems willing to help Auntie Barbara decorate her house, Mark insists his brother do nothing of the sort. For Mark the relationships he sees around him are based on money and power and Mark sees, often with great astuteness, budding bourgeois Barbara’s offer of work as a way of creating a rift between the two close brothers. Perhaps were Mark less given to so clear-sighted a view, love and affection would be forthcoming. But Mark’s more interested in credence than in affection. When he tells Colin at the end of the film that he’s going to get away from London; that he must find human affection on his own terms – not in Auntie Barbara’s patronising homilies and condescending concern – the issue of self-credence is categorical.
In Naked, the London based nurse and ex-girlfriend who allows Johnny to stay in her flat still obviously feels affection for the disaffected Mancunian, but Johnny insists that such care and consideration is misplaced. Instead he takes up with another isolate, the Goth, Sophie, and settles into an almost sado-masochistic relationship based as readily on self-hate as on feeling of love. When it looks like Sophie wants something more, Johnny – who at the film’s beginning escapes Manchester after raping a woman in an alley – all but throws her down the stairs.
Even Ricky in Career Girls isn’t without people offering affection. Mumbling, tic-ridden, and weighing in at around twenty five stone, Ricky may be rejected by his London flatmate Annie, but there is still affection being offered, if not sex. When Ricky disappears back up to Hartlepool after the rejection, Annie and fellow flatmate Hannah take a seven hour trip to the town in search of him. And there they find Ricky, staying with his beloved nana, with Ricky insisting Annie and Hannah “fuck off back where you come from”. Years later Annie and Hannah come across Ricky sitting on the steps downstairs from their former London flat. His nana has died and as he sits there hugging a cuddly toy we see that his mental health has all but gone.
Ricky is the most extreme example of inertia practised as pride, of holding on to a sense of individuality and righteousness even if the very self collapses as a consequence. Ricky may refer to himself as an “idiot who hasn’t found his savant yet”, but one senses it is less foolishness that is the problem than that he lacks the assertive, self-protective intelligence of a Mark or a Johnny to hold himself together. In Leigh’s work pride usually comes before a fall if the individual doesn’t have the shrewdness or self-determination to stay integrated.
In Life is Sweet, for example, Nicola thankfully doesn’t have far to fall. She’s clearly loved by her mum, her sister and her dad, as she wiles away her days and nights in her bedroom, thinking about the world but more concerned with bringing up the contents of a half eaten Mars bar, we see that she needs all the family help she can get. That she lacks even a hint of psychic self-sufficiency is evident when her mum says near the film’s conclusion: “you were dying…Dr Harris told us you had two weeks to live. You didn’t know that did you? The three of us coming home every night crying our eyes out.” Nicola is undeniably in need of the home truths the more perceptive Mark and Johnny can do without. By the same token, Nicola’s lucky the home truths are delivered by a mum who cares and, with the purest of motives, cajoles her daughter into confronting herself.
Similar familial exchanges are to be found in Meantime, but the words of wisdom emanating from the father are to be taken less seriously. When Dad harangues Mark with the words, “twenty years of clothing you, feeding you, wiping your arses”, mum cuts in and says, “when did you ever wipe their arses?” Nicola may be able to afford a lack of self-consciousness – her family is there for her. In Mark’s case the family presence is an ambivalent one. Perhaps this is why Nicola fits snugly into the family womb. She never goes out, and her boyfriend comes round regularly and services her. Mark, on the other hand, is frequently seen out on the streets of London, framed by a wider milieu. It is as if the constant ambulating is a way of seeing the world outside the narrow confines of oppressive family expectation: be that the upward mobility of Barbara, or the belligerent poverty of his parents. When Mark says he has to escape, it is towards something bigger and broader than the life choices that offer themselves; as with Naked, Meantime is finally less a familial film than a picaresque. In each instance Leigh’s camera utilises long lenses to capture a character trying to understand an ever expanding world. When Colin asks Mark where he’s going to go, he replies “anywhere”.
Clearly both Nicola and Mark are in states of inertia, and both also find it almost impossible to receive affection. But equally clear is that their inertia stems from contrary positions. Life is Sweet ends with Nicola sitting in the back garden engaged in conversation with her twin sister. Near the end of Meantime, Mark crouches next to Colin in a similar scene of tentative affection. However, where Mark and Colin’s moments of privacy are hard won – Mark insistently tells his parents they want to talk alone – Nicola and Nathalie’s talk comes after a scene of family togetherness, and they’re left to talk freely in an open space. And there are also of course key socio-spatial differences. Where Marks’s family live in a dilapidated two bedroom high-rise, with the parents unemployed, Nicola and co. live in a tidy terraced three bedroom house with parents in work. When Mark demands space we’re to assume it as a basic human right; when Nicola demands the same, when she shuts herself away in her room, it is closer to a neurotic urge. What we have in Meantime, then, is Mark’s awareness of the world in which he lives, and the need, though never full articulated, to escape its undeniable limitations and deprivations. Inertia here is about thinking and waiting – weighing up the options. Inertia in Life is Sweet, however, is close to a petulant retreat from life’s possibilities.
Bringing out similarities and differences in Mark and Nicola helps pinpoint why Naked needn’t seem much of a departure. Made in 1993, a decade after Meantime, and Leigh’s first film after the pastel-coloured cheerfulness of Life is Sweet, we notice that Johnny’s simply a more complex composite of aspects present in both Mark and Nicola. Johnny shares with Mark a disdain for any hint of upward mobility, and shares with Nicola a need to utilize a theoretical framework for his misery. But where Nicola reduces everything to a single, condemnatory word: ‘capitalist, ‘fascist’, ‘misogynist’, Johnny is more given to equational explanations for the world’s ills. In one scene he harangues a benign security guard about the inevitability of the world’s collapse. He couches his theory in a combo of scientific and mystical vocab that very nearly makes sense. If we’re meant to write off Nicola’s take on the world and give space to Johnny’s, it has nothing to do with their political perspective per se (Nicola’s is in many ways more sensible than Johnny’s), it is that Johnny has worked out of his inertial state a dynamic concept. However crazy he’s created a kind of parallel universe of thought to cope with living in the ‘real world’. While Nicola stays at home and holds perfectly rational political views, though she need never test their validity in the world outside her house – thus rendering meaningful ideas hollow – Johnny moves from person to person, trying to impress upon people outlandish views that gain a degree of credibility through the imaginative thinking behind them, and the fervent articulacy with which they’re delivered. At the same time, in Johnny, Leigh has another peripatetic character who can allow him to film London as a geographically exploratory space. When John Orr in The Art and Politics of Film suggests Naked is an unusual film for Leigh because it is “so visually memorable”, we might say it feels so not because Leigh is being formally fresh, but because he has a character who justifies his exploration of the city scape, its buildings and its inhabitants. In this sense Meantime often appears equally visually fresh, where the much more sedentary Secrets and Lies, for example, will search out a static minimalism. This is evident for example in a scene where the mother and her newly discovered long since adopted daughter sit in a café and Leigh utilises an almost completely empty café space, and films the pair of them frontally in a long take.
So Leigh’s visual schema comes out of the people, and so what we have here are three Leigh characters – Mark, Nicola and Johnny – all with leftist political beliefs that are at odds with the older generation, and who are caught in states of inertia. Mark provides no obvious political language for his position – it is as if all the politics he needs comes from the simple notion of observing with his own eyes. In one sequence, when Mark and Barbara go looking for the missing Colin, they pass the sort of salubrious London areas Mark has no reason ever to go near except via a visit to his aunt’s. What he sees, and what we see, articulates as readily as political language the gap between Mark’s life in a rundown housing estate and those who were in the process of benefiting from the Thatcher years: it came out in 1983.
Meantime is the most obvious precursor to Naked. It certainly shares with the earlier film an ostensible pessimism. David Thomson for example, in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, believed Naked was Leigh at his most direct: “Suddenly it was easier to see how far the high comedy of low manners had been masking Leigh’s distress with modern England.” Andy Medhurst reckoned in Sight and Sound, “Naked is misanthropy run wild.” But is it too much of a provocation to say Naked is one of Leigh’s most perversely optimistic films, an invigoratingly apocalyptic rant about Britain’s secrets and lies? For does Johnny not semi-optimistically offer a curious synthesis? He combines the observational intelligence of Mark, while possessing the bookishness that Nicola feigns. In Johnny’s case we know he’s read the books and not just the jacket covers, and we know that unlike Mark he can put into words what he sees. He even has a sexual energy to which pretty much every woman in the film is drawn: the aforementioned Louise and Sophie, and also a lost and lonely woman to whom Johnny pays a visit halfway through the film. What Leigh creates here is a misogynistic renaissance man, a man of many talents who uses all of them to the bad, but perhaps for a more societally transcendent good. He is like a Bacchaean figure refusing to conform to the sort of societal decency that leaves so many Leigh characters caught in their own embarrassment, or reduced to silence. If Mark semi-articulately convinces his brother that helping Barbara decorate her house is an act of deference that is demeaning, we may or may not agree, but can see that Mark’s advice is offered with a strong sense of righteousness. But Johnny fully articulates the pointlessness of living an honourable life. When Johnny harangues the night porter who has his own self-contained nocturnal existence, a man whose optimism resides in the idea of a dream holiday cottage, Johnny tries to convince him his hopefulness is futile. Johnny tells the guard he has the most boring job in Britain, enquires when he last had sex, and casually informs the bloke that his body smell is thoroughly malodorous.
So where is the optimism? Johnny is in many ways Leigh’s most odious character, certainly, but he is also the most self-defined of Leigh’s creations, the closest to a Leigh character that transcends the belief expressed in High Hopes that, so the upper middle-class wine expert Rupert says, “what made this country great is a place for everybody and everybody in his place.” The left-wing Leigh obviously doesn’t approve of such a view, but most of his work has examined rather than moved beyond the phrase. He’s usually and very shrewdly shown people in their places: be that Beverly in Abigail’s Party who puts the Beaujolais in the fridge and Demis Roussos on the turntable, or the more successfully aspirational Monica in Secrets and Lies, whose multi-bedroom home has borders all around the walls and who was quick to move in on husband Maurice’s family inheritance. In each instance aspiration may knock the characters off centre (they’re usually insincere or on edge), but allows Leigh to locate them exactly in their milieu. They don’t seem to live inside their skin but inside their home’s interior design.
In Naked, though, Leigh reckons it is “a film in which everybody is somewhere where they don’t belong.” (Hard Times) At first this would seem a deeply pessimistic statement. Johnny travels down from Manchester and kips on his ex-girlfriend’s floor. His ex-girlfriend is herself a Mancunian in London, pursuing a career. A couple of Scots Johnny meets on his travels are obviously homeless in the big city, and there is also a young waitress Johnny meets who is looking after somebody else’s home. Even the security guard does nothing but occupy a space that isn’t his.
But this geographical alienation needn’t be such a bad thing. In other Leigh films movement is viewed positively. Mark’s possible escape at the end of Meantime, for example, whilst a number of characters who stay where they are would probably benefit from a change of scenery. The pessimistic socialist Cyril from High Hopes, say, who lives in a cramped top floor flat with his partner, The flat is so cold that the couple sleep in the sitting room where there is a decent fire. Then there is Leigh’s debut feature, Bleak Moments, where the central character shares a roomy though drab London suburban semi with her disabled sister. “If we could get round to touching each other it wouldn’t be such a bad thing…”Sylvie says, drunkenly propositioning an uptight schoolteacher after he’s taken her out for dinner. In each instance we might see emotional and intellectual energy lost to the dictates of the environment. Cyril can’t quite extricate himself from a family that has no interest in his political position; and can’t quite commit himself to starting a family of his own. Sylvie is caught between looking after her sister, and freeing herself up enough to escape impending frigidity. Cyril and Sylvie may not require complete escape. But a temporary escape, a brief period of being “somewhere where they don’t belong’ wouldn’t be a bad idea.
It is in this sense that Johnny can be seen as one of Leigh’s most optimistic creations. If Johnny is the only Leigh character intellectually articulate (Cyril’s socialist beliefs are undeniable, but they seem less organically developed than Johnny’s anarchic stance, less intellectually thought out), he’s also one of the few leading Leigh characters extricated enough from his surroundings to feel completely unfettered by the milieu. At the end of Naked, Johnny walks off with a few hundred quid left lying on Louise’s sideboard, intending presumably to continue on his wayward travels. Yes, Leigh’s ending hints at the deeply disturbing; there Johnny hobbles up the road, still recovering from a severe beating, while the music implies further trouble to come.
But when we look at other Leigh films, and see apparently more optimistic endings, we should perhaps see the optimism within the context of the general theme of inertia. Many of Leigh’s films conclude with a queasy combination of cheerfulness and/or retreat into societal expectation. Secrets and Lies concludes hopefully – the secrets and lies have been exposed at a barbecue gathering, and the final scene in the film has mum, Cynthia, cheerfully sitting in the garden with her two daughters: one the black daughter the white Cynthia hasn’t seen since birth; the other the white daughter who seemed to have been drawing away from her mum in the early stages of the film. But after all the class hassles and general bickering, can they really expect contentment and happiness so suddenly?
Life is Sweet also, of course, concludes in the garden as the two sisters openly talk while their parents happily sit inside. Here there is hope, but there is also, on the outskirts of the film’s happy ending, a father who remains in a job he hates and whose dreams of a mobile food business is stuck on hold after he breaks a leg. It would be stretching a point unfairly to insist that the endings of High Hopes (where Cyril and his partner decide to spend more time with his mum), Secrets and Lies and Life is Sweet lack hope, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder why any optimism is tempered, on some level compromised. Naked concludes on an apparently unequivocally pessimistic note, and yet maybe contains a greater optimistic possibility.
This optimism is less in the film’s narrative – after all, Johnny escapes to London after an act of sexual abuse, and leaves the London flat after himself receiving a beating. It lies more on the edge of the film. If we ignore the happy endings of some of Leigh’s films, and think instead of the compromises demanded by certain characters, we notice from where the equivocalness of Leigh’s endings stems. If we attach to these characters the degree to which they’re inertial, we see the endings as band-aids, social plasters that do little to alleviate an underlying anguish. That horrible but oft repeated phrase “a place for everybody and everybody in his place” is fulfilled by pretty much every Leigh character with the exception of Johnny. Whether the ending has the obvious pessimism of Bleak Moments, with Sylvie alone, hammering on the piano, of the hopefulness that concludes Life is Sweet, the socio-political pessimism remains intact. In refusing a place for Johnny, Naked’s narrative may conclude without a feel-good factor, but it does indicate a ruthless, self-defining streak in Johnny that Leigh eschews in the rest of his work.
Why Leigh eschews it who knows. But the eschewal manifests itself frequently in familial decency, in a constant though curiously emotionally and psychologically withdrawn busyness. In the closing scenes in High Hopes, we might assume politics begin at home, with Cyril’s mum staying over for the first time, and with Cyril saying he is going to have to go round and visit her more often. If Andy in Life is Sweet has stayed in his job so long rather than starting his own business, then it is again the family issue. As his wife explains to Nicola, for years she and Andy have grafted to make sure their kids had a decent life. In Secrets and Lies Maurice works so hard partly to fill the gaps his wife’s infertility has created in their marriage. All his care and consideration go not into an individual sense of purpose, so much as into the family. As he says at his niece’s twenty first birthday party: “I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people I love most in the world [his wife, his sister and his niece] hate each other’s guts. I’m in the middle and I can’t take it any more.” In Career Girls, the single women, Hannah and Annie, have mums they’re living with or half-looking after. Another of Leigh’s single women, Bleak Moments’ Sylvie, can’t leave her disabled sister, while even Mark in Meantime, for all his surliness, has a deep affection for his brother that could keep him in and around the London housing estate he so desperately wants to escape. Here everybody has his or her place, but it is a place not politically motivated, but just as readily a product of straight-jacketed emotional decency. Only Johnny seems immune to such familial expectation – for as we notice during the sever beating he receives, any parental obligation seems unlikely: he is still traumatized by parental beatings in the past.
So Johnny, then, might be the only Leigh character that retains enough general decency for possible political change, and yet still escape from the guilt of familial expectation. Others who lack emotional decency also lack any social or political edge. Whether that be the dishevelled dunk played by Stephen Rea in Life is Sweet, or the self-made man, Martin, in High Hopes. And of course we can’t expect political action from High Hopes’ posh couple, nor from the caricatured yuppie in Naked – who thinks taking a woman from behind proves his superior social status. Even the potentially sympathetic, clearly repressed schoolteacher in Bleak Moments can’t resist positioning himself next to another of Sylvie’s possible suitors. He stands, books in hand, and enquires about the shuffling guitarist’s educational background, all the while a judgemental look on his face. Then there is a the childless couple, Keith and Candice Marie In Nuts in May, who want to save the world through a vegetarian lifestyle and interest in green issues, but, Keith in particular, wants to keep the world to himself: any other visitor to the caravan site is seen as an intrusion. Keith doesn’t want to save the world so much as control it.
So where, with all this apathy, condescension, familial pressure and social constraints, does Leigh indicate the political, beyond some brusque remarks in interviews? “I feel despondent”, he says, “about what the world will be like in 2030.” (Cineaste XXII, no. 4) Jurgen Enkemann insists in Hard Times “I think all your films are anti-capitalist at heart”, and Leigh replies “of course they are”. Again we return to the notion of busyness and inertia. Inertia in Leigh’s films generally comes through a retreat from the social order without a sense of a better one, be that the semi-political retreat of people with family responsibilities that squash them or in some way restrict them (Sylvie in Bleak Moments, Cyril in High Hopes, Maurice in Secrets and Lies), or who feel intimidated or are shrunken within a relationship: Candice Marie, Barbara, Kitty. All these characters, with the exception of Nicola and up to a point Candice Marie, when they are inertial are inertial out of intelligence, out of seeing a bigger picture than they feel they can justifiably contain and live happily within. Their lack of false consciousness engenders possible collapse. Some of them are still busy: but one senses their busyness at the beginning of the film subsequently leads to a state of deflation. Their intelligence refuses to allow them to act when action is futile.
Here we can contrast the busy characters in Leigh’s films who question their lives, with those who are busy past the point of intelligence. If inertia is often the result of intellectual confrontation, busyness beyond a certain point is the mind in denial. Examples litter Leigh’s work. There is Beverly in Abigail’s Party, who still tries to engage everybody in drinking and dancing long after the situation demands a complete change of mood. There is Cyril’s sister Valerie in High Hopes who, after inviting their mum over to dinner, pursues the birthday conventions long after the mood has soured. In an early sequence in Meantime, it is clear that Barbara’s family gathering at her plush pad has failed, but she is the last to notice. It is not until the film’s conclusion that she confronts her life.
This is clearly not the same as Andy’s busyness, Maurice’s work ethic or even Gilbert’s topsy-turvy play-writing. But in the wider scheme of things – from a socio-political perspective – it might well be. If Abigail, Valerie an to some degree Barbara, push a social situation even though all energy and enthusiasm for it has left the room, is it too much to suggest that for all Andy, Maurice and Gilbert’s activity, they are also caught in a (wider) trap – equally absurd if seen with a distanced eye? For constantly in Leigh’s work the characters are brought into conflict with socio-economic statuses that differ from their own. Mark, his brother, and their parents, in Meantime, contrast with Barbara and her husband. Cyril, his partner, and his mum, in High Hopes, are contrasted not only with nouveau riche sister and her husband, but also the yuppie couple who have moved in next door to his mum as the area becomes gentrified. In Secrets and Lies, Cynthia wonders why Maurice no longer visits, and when looking at his wife’s house, Cynthia offers a few acerbic observations that bring out her own lowly status, and Maurice’s clear move up in the world.
For those who are still poor, (like Mark, Cyril and Cynthia), the contrast hints at class consciousness; but equally, for the newly comfortable (for Barbara, Valerie and for Maurice) there is nevertheless the chance to become class-conscious to see what they have let behind. Even Leigh’s most successful and obviously bourgeois character, Gilbert, is made aware of his status when he’s condescendingly referred to as ‘the legitimate monarch of the realm of Topsy-Turvydom’, and again later when Sullivan all but admits Gilbert’s writing is beneath his talents.
Of course we might read this confrontation with status as a reflection of Leigh’s own position as too often a prophet without honour in his own land. It is more or less the position Marianne Macdonald takes in a profile on the director (The Independent), when she quotes Michael Coveney’s biography on the filmmaker, “the outsiderdom of Leigh’s minor characters all reflect the alienated aspect of Leigh’s status in the British cultural establishment.” But to see this large, sociologically complicated oeuvre as a reflection of Leigh’s outsider stays doesn’t do justice to the class contrast in his work. He seems as inclined to side with the winners, materialists and grafters (Maurice, Andy, Gilbert and Hannah) as with those on the outside looking in. If we must bring in a biographical detail that hints as things to come, his upbringing as the son of a middle-class doctor living in working class Salford would seem more appropriate, and maybe more relevant to the sense of class conflict without taking clear sides that is so central to his work.
So finally we come to what Andy Medhurst in Sight and Sound has politely called the ‘P’word in relation to Leigh’s films: the degree to which he patronises his characters. Medhurst reckons such observations are usually proffered by the ‘kind of street corner, glotally challenged voices that middle-class boys only achieve after stringent de-elocution lessons and six months’ membership of the campus SWP.” Maybe he is right. But what about the C-word, the way in which Leigh creates caricatures rather than characters? For all the research Leigh goes in for (eloquently explored in Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh and elsewhere), where, in his words, “we’re creating characters who are like real people, so it can only be an accumulation of experience which leads to who we finally are”, most of Leigh’s characters are more heightened than we would usually expect from so improvisatory, so realist a method. If critic Alexander Walker once said of that other major film chronicler of late twentieth century British life, Ken Loach, that “he pushes his thesis to extremes”, is it fair to say that Leigh pushes his characters to extremes. If Loach and his scriptwriters push an issue – homelessness, unemployment, the violating effects of social services – to extremes, to its outer edges; Leigh keeps his stories simple but his characters hyperbolic. Loach indicates the harshness of personal struggle from the bottom in a class ridden society. Leigh is more inclined to illustrate the psychic contortions of people usually better off than those in Loach’s films, but generally less secure in their essential being. When Leigh told Timothy Spall to play someone in Life is Sweet who has no personality, he was only making clear a feature that seems central to numerous Leigh characters.
In a country where many still believe in a place for everyone and everyone in their place, what can a character do if he demands something more from life? Do they take the busy route of the naïve Spall character that opens his own restaurant in an attempt to mimic the bourgeoisie, whilst desperately escaping from the working class, or follow Johnny, whose sophistication is equalled by a studied inertia that reckons any action is beside the point? Leigh’s work, then, poses for us the unpalatable idea that of all his characters, the truculent, sexually abusive Johnny is the only one with a degree of freedom, the one leading Leigh character who can justifiably earn the term existential. Sure Johnny has moved beyond the political to the apocalyptic. He has pushed his ideas to the brink, incorporated within them more than he needs for action, but he is also the one who walks off at the end, hobbling along the road towards enlightenment or annihilation we do not know, but refusing to make do, refusing to settle for life’s condescendingly small pleasures when the bigger questions need to be asked. Whether you are inclined to agree with the notion that Johnny is more readily an optimistic creation than the more lovable Maurice, the more humorous Andy, or the more conscientious Cyril will depend on where you are coming from; or perhaps where you are hoping to go.