One of my main Christmas presents this year was a Mike Leigh boxset. It contained all his theatrical films up until Vera Drake. Over the past few months I’ve watched seven of his films for the first time. If you’ve yet to see any of Leigh’s work (e.g. Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year) here’s a few reasons why I think you should:
Mike Leigh has a rather unique way of writing his screenplays. Instead of writing a traditional script, he writes character biographies. He then shares each of these with the individual actors he has chosen for each part. He doesn’t tell them anything about the film beyond this. Like real life, the characters know their own pasts, but not their own futures.
From here, he gets all the actors together and rehearses scenes. He may tell certain characters to do or say certain things, but no actor knows what another will say or do.
All of this gives each character in every scene a terrific sense of ‘self’. Since they are not slaves to plot, you know that every line or look comes from the sense of history Leigh has gone to great lengths to capture. One critic put it nicely when he said: “Every character believes they are the protagonist in a Mike Leigh film”
The freedom and versatility this affords each actor allows other elements of reality to shine through. In particular each character has a very distinct set of mannerisms and way of moving that is much more evident in Leigh’s work than that of any other director. In real life, it is often the case we can tell who someone is from a distance, not from their appearance, but from the way they walk. There is that sense in Leigh’s films as well. Whether characters have an inability to sit still, or are very static and hidden, Leigh seems to convey the individual movement of self in a very realistic manner.
It is difficult to escape the setting of all of Leigh’s work, which always carries a British sensibility far removed from the playful tone of a Richard Curtis film.
Social Realism is often the term used to describe both his and Ken Loach’s work. As such, Leigh’s characters are much more everyday and ordinary than the caricatures we associate with Curtis films like Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Characters in Leigh’s films are never far from a cup of tea or a glass of beer. They also use accents and dialects in a manner which must be confusing to foreign watchers of his films.
In addition, the impact of the Thatcher era on working class families is never far from Leigh’s mind. It is most evident in Meantime, although clearly permeates the environment in which High Hopes and All or Nothing are set.
If one were to play a game whereby you have to guess whether or not a clip was from a Mike Leigh film, my guess is it would become blatantly obvious as soon as any one character opens their mouth.
A typical exchange in a Leigh film is as follows (taken from ALL OR NOTHING. For info, Rory is Penny and Phil’s son. The conversation is happening on the phone. I guess I should say SPOILERS ahead for the film:)
PENNY: Rory’s had a heart attack
PENNY: We’re up at the hospital. South London General.
PHIL: What do you mean, heart attack?
PENNY: What do you mean, “what do I mean, heart attack?”
PHIL: Is he all right?
PENNY: No, he ain’t all right!
PHIL: He ain’t dead, is he?
PENNY: Course he ain’t dead. Where are you?
PHIL: Well, I’m just coming up to that big Chinese supermarket. You know that one on the roundabout by….
PENNY: Phil, for f***’s sake. Just hurry up and get here, all right?
PENNY hangs up phone.
I think why this piece of dialogue works so well, and why dialogue is so effective in Leigh’s films in general, is that neither character really understands what the other is saying. The wrong questions are asked to get the information each character requires.
In the exchange, Penny is clearly keen for her husband to get to the hospital. She asks, “Where are you?” What she really wants to know is “How long will you be?” So when he answers the question she literally asks, she swears at him, frustrated she didn’t get the answer she was looking for.
Likewise, when Phil asks “What do you mean, heart attack?” he has again asked the wrong question. Really he just wants to convey his shock at the news, and is essentially implying his wife must be mistaken.
In movies, we are used to characters being able to read each other’s minds and would potentially become frustrated by these types of exchanges in a film like Indiana Jones, where there are lots of explanations at every point about how to overcome the next obstacle in their path. Were the characters unable to communicate properly with each other, films like this would lose the sense of tension and excitement their directors intend.
Nevertheless, Leigh’s films give us a much more realistic picture of the way we communicate. Every conversation we have is made up of a series of misunderstandings and/or repeating of information. Try, for example, giving directions to someone without repeating yourself, or having them repeat the information they’re getting back to you. It would be impossible, and is actually a very unnatural way to communicate.
Aside from these confused exchanges of dialogue, speech is also used as a way of breaking silence, as oppose to conveying new information. Leigh’s characters often don’t communicate with the literal words they are saying, but rather in the manner in which they are saying it. Again, in our own lives if we consider the exchanges we have every day, how many are because we are really interested in the topic we’re talking about, and how many are because we are interested in the person we’re talking with?
Now I’ve conveyed all my reasons for loving Leigh’s work, my hope is that you will watch one of his films (if you haven’t already). I should warn you, however, if you’re into films with very clear plots and stories, you may find his work quite frustrating. Often it will not be until the last twenty minutes you finally find out what the film is telling you. On other occasions, the film can end, and you’re left thinking: “What was that all about?”
The two films which have a much more traditional structure, and as such are great starting points for newcomers to Leigh, are Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake.
Secrets and Lies is about a woman in her thirties who has recently lost her adopted mother, and goes searching for her biological mother.
Vera Drake concerns a quiet, gentle woman who gives “back-street” abortions to young girls. It’s set in the 1950s.