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Posts Tagged ‘Mike Leigh’

I spent a brief interlude a few years ago travelling around the world, frequently to places slightly off the beaten track. This was in pre-Kindle days and I found myself becoming quite reliant on the local bookcases of anywhere I ended up for reading matter. I ended up reading all sorts of weird things – a book about Israeli nuclear weapons entitled The Samson Option, for instance – as well as a lot of what I would previously have described as ‘improving literature’. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mansfield Park, amongst others, and what I discovered is that these books have endured not just because they will help you pass your exams, but because they are actually really good books.

Is there a movie equivalent to the ‘improving book’? If there is, then I would say that most of the Mike Leigh films I have seen would qualify. I am aware that Leigh makes his serious films and his not-quite-so-serious films, but I must confess that I find all the ones that I’ve seen to be pretty hard work, despite the fact that they are clearly made with conviction and with many of the most impressive actors currently working in the UK. Maybe it’s the Mike Leigh Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method that I just can’t get on with. And yet I persevere, because everyone else agrees that he is a major British director whose films deserve to be looked at.

Leigh has recently turned up with his second costume-drama film in a row, the latest one being Peterloo. Now, for a long time I thought that Peterloo was the name of a medium-sized railway station somewhere in the midlands, but of course it is not: it is the name given to a defining moment in British political history, the bicentennial of which will be on us next summer (I would have thought releasing Peterloo for the actual anniversary would have been the smart move, but then again this is hardly what you’d call a summer movie).

The film itself opens in 1815, with a cleverly economical depiction of the battle of Waterloo, followed by various tableaux of the red-coated survivors, damaged but victorious, limping back to Britain. This is intercut with scenes of Parliament acting very self-congratulatory, giving huge amounts of cash to the Duke of Wellington but totally ignoring his troops, and one of Wellington’s generals being put in charge of the army in the north of England, where an insidious ideology threatening insurrection and sedition has apparently established itself…

What’s all that about, then? Well, the film settles down to focus on a group of reformers, hoping to do something about the (to modern eyes) incredibly unfair and corrupt political system of the period. (A huge new industrial city like Manchester had no representation in parliament, while the vote itself was limited only to landowners. This basically allowed the toiling workers in the mills to be royally screwed over and worked halfway to death without their having much in the way of recourse.) The reformers are working to introduce a greater degree of democracy and to reduce the level of inequality between rich and poor. One of their ideas is to hold a huge public meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, to be addressed by the gentleman and radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear).

The leading magistrates of the region (who are introduced in scenes where they are shown having old women flogged for having a sneaky drink from her employer’s stash, and men hanged for stealing coats) are less than delighted by this idea, seeing it as the potential beginning of a republican uprising and the overthrow of British society (this was less than thirty years after the French revolution, after all). Tension grows when someone throws a potato at the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny). Leaders of the movement are arrested and the militia is placed on standby…

Caught up in all of this, and in many ways the chief point of audience identification, is a typical family of workers from Manchester, one of whose members returns from France at the start of the film. Led by matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), they go along with the reformist movement and decide to attend the huge meeting that takes place at the climax of the film. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, it’s the bit you’ve been waiting for: the Peterloo massacre!

Hmmm, I don’t often say this, but this is a really odd one. As ever with Mike Leigh, every frame of the film seems to sweat conviction and authenticity, and it almost goes without saying that the costume drama is one type of film that the British film industry does exceedingly well almost without trying particularly hard. And yet this is, inevitably, more than just another simple bonnet opera: the film isn’t quite the undiluted agitprop it could have been if, say, Ken Loach had been in charge of it, but it is certainly not uncoloured by political ideas about democracy and the representation of the will of the people. At times it almost resembles what Barry Lyndon would have been like, if that film had been written by Jeremy Corbyn.

Even I would normally shy away from a film with a description like that (and I should mention that the main critic of one right-wing newspaper has declared it to be ‘unwatchable’), but I should say that Peterloo remains engaging and curiously accessible throughout – although possibly not for reasons that Leigh and the other film-makers would be delighted about. This is clearly a very earnest, completely seriously-intentioned film, with many early scenes consisting almost entirely of characters making long-winded speeches to groups of other characters (this does become slightly hard work). But at the same time, it contains a large number of performances that are comically, almost self-parodically broad. It’s the fact that the film doesn’t seem to have much sense of humour that pushes some scenes towards comedy: the dialogue amongst the working-class characters kicks off with people saying things like ‘Ey, ah’ll sithee’ to each other and proceeds to include gems such as ‘I shall take my leave now, for I intend to go home and partake of a hot potato pie’. But is this a sign something weirdly deadpan is going on here after all? Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method or not, I refuse to believe you would put that line in your film without your tongue being at least partly in your cheek.

Once you start noticing these sort of moments it’s very hard to stop: there’s a hilarious, Monty Python-like scene in which the family of barely-literate factory labourers pause to discuss the history, nature, and consequence of the Corn Laws, all for the benefit of the audience. The wicked magistrates are a set of grotesques straight from Royston Vasey. Rory Kinnear is wearing a wig which makes him look rather like Terry Scott’s character in Carry On Up the Jungle. Perhaps they should have gone the whole hog and cast Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, again – the choice of McInnerny just means everyone is going to be thinking of Blackadder anyway.

Oh, I suppose that I am just being silly and that Peterloo is meant to be the very serious film that it initially looks and sounds like. But someone has made some very odd creative choices along the way. The final third is difficult not to take seriously, anyway, even if subtlety has long since left the theatre – decent, progressive, generous working-class protestors turn up to the mass protest, while the forces of elitism and privilege gathered against them cackle and plot in top hats while they help themselves to claret.

The film’s big set piece is, obviously, the Peterloo massacre itself, and while Leigh is a great composer of a shot, in addition to being a talented director of actors, it initially looks like he’s fluffed the climax of the film – the camera is way up in the air away from the action as the cavalry and the soldiers advance into the panicking crowd. It’s competent but not cinematic. Later on, though, he does put the camera on the ground, in the middle of it all, and you do get a sense of the blood and panic and chaos of it all. Even so, the obvious anger of the film doesn’t necessarily translate into great cinema, and for a piece which is presumably at least partly meant to be educational, Leigh arguably fumbles the conclusion: I was expecting the traditional caption detailing the historical details of the massacre (a death toll is not provided), its consequences and political significance. None of this is given.

So in the end this is a rather odd film that sort of works, in that it does tell the story of the Peterloo massacre and provides some historical context for it – but on the other hand, it really doesn’t do quite enough in this respect, and too often the film seems to be on the verge of toppling over into some sort of gonzo comedy, just one without any actual jokes. Certainly a worthy and interesting piece of work, but largely devoid of subtlety and afflicted by a real inconsistency when it comes to its tone.

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For the past few weeks now, I have been observing that we seem to have been in receipt of a selection of movies that one might reasonably expect to have been held back for the traditional awards season – serious, quality stuff, with big names both in front of and behind the camera. I think we may as well declare Awards Season to have opened this year, because the parade of high-class worthies shows no sign of stopping, and I would be very surprised if none of them scored any gongs at all.

Already having picked up a couple of prixes francais, latest on the scene is Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Mike Leigh is, and I’m aware I’m probably about to generalise reprehensibly, best known as a sort of social historian of middle- and working-class Britain (if he ever remakes Interstellar, it will probably consist entirely of people arguing about crop rotation), but he is not averse to doing the odd period picture either: Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, was a notable success about fifteen years ago, and he has dipped into similar territory for Mr Turner.

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Tom Cruise’s favourite actor from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Timothy Spall, plays John Mallard William Turner, the noted landscape artist of the early 19th century. Exactly when the film begins is a little unclear, but Turner has already become a noted artist.

I should point out that, of course, Mr Turner appears to have been made in accordance with the dictates of Mike Leigh’s Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method, in which Leigh and his actors basically just sit around and… well, I don’t know, actually, he must swear them all to secrecy or something. Anyway the point about the RNMSIM is that it inevitably results in an overwhelming focus on character and the minutiae of performance, and films which are not exactly powerhouses of gripping plot.

And so the film opens with a very long shot – in every sense of the word – of a windmill at sunrise (or possibly sunset, who can tell), in front of which two slightly Pythonesque Dutch ladies walk past fairly slowly. The camera pans with them to reveal, in slightly less long shot, Turner making a sketch of the windmill. Cut to pre-Victorian London (economically but convincingly realised) and Turner’s homecoming. There are protracted greetings between Turner and his father (Paul Jesson), and the household maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), who has a skin condition, though clearly not to the point that it discourages Turner from taking the employer-domestic relationship into some fairly surprising areas.

Someone goes out and buys some paint. Turner wanders about and sketches things. His former mistress and unacknowledged children and grandchildren turn up and are given fairly short shrift. There are high-flown debates about art at the Royal Academy. Turner goes on holiday in Margate. So it goes, so it goes: the storyline of the film gradually develops, to be sure, but in a very low-key and inconspicuous way.

This is certainly a film which either drags its feet a bit or provides excellent value for money, depending on your point of view. It weighs in at a lengthy 129 minutes and is it absolutely true that every single moment of it is essential to the film’s thesis? I can’t help but think not.

Then again, it did occur to me as I was watching it that treating this as a conventional plot-driven film might be doing it a disservice: perhaps it is more a discursive piece, to be enjoyed and savoured in a more reflective way, making the most of the subtleties of performance, composition, costuming and so on. Well, maybe: there is certainly a lot to enjoy here, once you get your head around the somewhat languid pace and odd style.

On the other hand, for a film about a great artist, Mr Turner is only tangentially concerned with Mr Turner actually doing any painting. Perhaps this is the point and the aim of the film is to explore the flawed character of this astonishingly gifted human being. Well, that’s as may be, but the fact remains that quite a large proportion of this film consists of Timothy Spall grunting.

No, that’s not fair: in addition to grunting, he snorts, snuffles, croaks, groans, growls, rumbles, sniffs, and chokes a lot too. There are quite long scenes in which other characters exchange long pieces of dialogue, punctuated by the camera cutting to Turner watching them and going ‘Hrrrnnnnkk,’ or something similar, in the back of his throat. Spall finds a great deal of variation in these different vocalisations, of course: the ones he makes when hearing some ill-advised art criticism are quite different from the sounds he emits when disporting himself with the maid. (Perhaps Leigh’s next project should be a radical biography of Monica Seles, also starring Spall.)

Turner describes himself as a ‘gargoyle’ in the film and Spall himself seems to be taking ‘pugnacious’ as the starting-point for his performance. There is a lot of pop-eyed cantankerousness as things go on, especially as Turner’s style of art goes somewhat out of fashion and he begins to find the role of the artist somewhat supplanted by that of the photographer, but there are also moments of tenderness and the occasional insight into what drove Turner as an artist. It is undoubtedly Spall’s film as an actor: technically his performance is brilliant, even if Turner comes across as a bit of a Dickensian grotesque.

On the other hand, Dick Pope’s cinematography is also very striking, as you might expect in a film largely about visual spectacle and art. The film has a richness and texture that is really impressive, and at times a grandeur somewhat at odds with the nondescript nature of many of the scenes.

Does it manage to say anything particularly profound about either Turner himself or the life of an artist in general? No, not really, I think: the closest Leigh manages is to suggest that Turner’s brilliance as an artist was offset by his being fairly callous to most of those who loved him, especially Hannah the maid, whom he effectively dumps in favour of his common-law wife. Is this sort of thing justified if you’re so talented? Personally I would have thought not, but the film remains remarkably non-judgemental.

Mr Turner has racked up five-star reviews by the dozen, but even if I indulged in such things I couldn’t do the same. But I am aware that this may largely be because I have a different sensibility to Mike Leigh and his RNMSIM. Mr Turner is superbly acted and photographed throughout, and has clearly been directed and edited with a great deal of skill. It’s an extremely accomplished film. It’s just a bit too slow and mannered for my tastes.

 

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Hmmm – a slight confession. It’s an awful thing for a film-loving Englishman to have to confess to, but quite often I have a bit of a problem getting Mike Leigh and Ken Loach mixed up. Not so much in terms of their current work, but more when it comes to the back catalogue. I know that, in principle, the difference between the styles of the two men is very straightforward – if it’s fiercely committed, socially conscious, openly left-of-centre stuff (quite possibly featuring amateur performers and scenes depicting meetings) then it’s a Ken Loach movie, whereas if it’s acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life stuff (or, alternately, a Gilbert and Sullivan biopic), then you know that Mike Leigh is your man.

Being a ranting lefty ideologue myself I am naturally more of a Loach follower, but I try to keep an open mind, and someone recently lent me Leigh’s well-received 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, an (would you believe it) acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life drama about modern London life. Hmmm.

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a primary school teacher living a fairly carefree existence, spending her time enjoying herself with her friends, trampolining (this is not a euphemism), and… oh, I don’t know, all sorts of BoHo stuff I expect, for she is quite clearly a Free Spirit. Then her bike is nicked, which prompts her to learn to drive. Unfortunately her instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan), an extremely uptight and fastidious teacher, much afflicted with unreconstructed attitudes and worryingly prone to believe in any old nonsense he reads on the internet.

Needless to say the two do not get on, and… Well, to be honest, the thing about bittersweetly comic slice-of-life dramas is that they are not overburdened with what you’d actually describe as a plot. This film is not short on incident, but neither is there much sense of progression beyond the driving instruction scenes (which do not make up a great deal of the film).

I borrowed this film from a colleague who pitched it to me on the strength of it being an interesting disquisition on different styles of teaching (we are both teachers ourselves) and I can see how, if you put your head on one side and squint, this is sort of the case. Many of the characters in this film are teachers of one sort or another, and they do approach it in different ways – Poppy is very touchy-feely and intuitive, her flatmate (Alexis Zegerman) somewhat less so, while Poppy’s flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) is much stricter but at the same time very motivating. Scott, on the other hand, just invokes bizarre kabbala (he keeps chanting the name of the fallen angel ‘En-Ra-Ha’) and shouts a lot. But on the other hand, the film doesn’t seem to be dealing with this in any explicit way, except to say that Poppy is a good teacher because she is a nice person, but Scott is only a bad teacher because he’s had some tough experiences.

Beyond this the film really just seems to be a lot of actors Obviously Acting. People speak in hushed tones of Mike Leigh’s near-mythical method of working, using lots of improvisation, etc, etc, but here the result seems to have been quite a few self-indulgent performances. I am aware that a lot of film dialogue is not especially naturalistic, but given a choice between entertainingly witty and well-written non-naturalistic dialogue, and dialogue straining so hard to sound natural it instantly starts to sound fake (as in this film), I would choose the former.

I am aware that I am very much swimming against the critical tide in saying that I didn’t really like this film very much, but I have to call ’em as I see ’em. I also have to say that, rather than give Sally Hawkins an award, as so many people did, I would be more inclined to… actually, that’s not fair. Hawkins’ performance is convincing and coherent, and Poppy is certainly a very decent, responsible, and in many ways admirable human being. But she is also one of the most fantastically irritating main characters I have ever seen. The film publicity describes her as ‘irrepressibly cheerful’, ‘with a gift for making the most of life’. This mainly manifests itself as her being apparently incapable of shutting her mouth for more than ten seconds at a time, making a relentless string of whimsically comic (although not, to my ear, actually funny) comments, which she proceeds to laugh at herself. She floats through the film, usually with an inane grin on her face, regardless of everything else that happens. Watching her, I felt the urge to run violently amok, but as I was in my garret at the time I resisted this impulse.

It doesn’t really help that the film presents her in an unfailingly favourable light – she is apparently a good, creative, caring teacher (we see her planning an art lesson, which of course involves her putting a paper bag on her head and pretending to be a parrot), a reliable friend, she stops off on the way home at night to have long conversations with homeless people she’s never met before. I started to want her to be involved in a freak trampolining or flamenco-dancing accident which would force her to reassess her life. But no. All that happens is a visit to the physiotherapist and her hooking up with a boyfriend who is notably lacking in personality.

Oh, and some business with Scott. The weird thing is that the film clearly wants you to pity Scott – ‘You were an only child, weren’t you?’ Poppy sagely observes, later adding ‘Were you bullied at school?’ – but for me at least he came across as a much more engaging and sympathetic character than Poppy. Eddie Marsan manages to be genuinely funny, which is more than I can honestly say for Hawkins, and it was his scenes that made this film watchable at all for me (well, Zegerman is also very good in a supporting role). I would have been much more interested in seeing a film about Scott and his relationships with his various weird driving instructees, in which Poppy occasionally appeared as a hippy-dippy irritant, than this one in which Scott is a minor character, somewhat patronised by the film.

But there you go, I’m not a National Treasure of the British Film Industry, and it may be that this is just the sort of thing that happens when you mystically improvise the scripts of your films. Happy-Go-Lucky is beautifully photographed and features a couple of really nice supporting performances, and there is the occasional suggestion of interesting ideas going on deep down in the story. None of this can really make up for my overwhelmingly negative reaction to Hawkins’ performance and characterisation, though – like the rest of the film, it’s technically accomplished, but a bit of a drudge to sit through.

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