Thursday, August 26, 2010

Modern Maestros: Mike Leigh

Robert here, with another entry in my series about great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Mike Leigh
Known For: modern kitchen sink dramas.
Influences: classic kitchen sink dramas.
Masterpieces: Secrets & Lies
Disasters: some less memorable entries, but certainly no disasters
Better than you remember: depends on how you remember things.
Box Office: Secrets & Lies with over 13 mil (such is the power of Oscar publicity)
Favorite Actor: Leslie Manville

Mike Leigh often gets short changed as the king of crying. This is undoubtedly because his two best known films of the past twenty years (thanks to a pair of best actress nominations) have been the copiously, though not excessively weepy Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake. Which is why it was such a shame that Sally Hawkins failed to be nominated for Happy-Go-Lucky. Aside from the fact that she was great (usually an afterthought for the Academy) it certainly couldn't have hurt to have drawn attention to the fact that not all of Leigh's films are devastatingly depressing. In fact, the proper constant of Leigh's films isn't sadness but insight, honesty and the routinely fantastic performances that bring it all about.

Mike Leigh is one of the few filmmakers still dedicated to the idea of kitchen sink realism. His films frame the messy imperfect lives of the Britons with sincerity, never judgment. The principles of the great British filmmakers of the 1960's which seemed so mod and truthful then an have seemingly gone out of style are sill alive in his movies. While his themes may seem old fashioned his method is one rare enough to seem perpetually modern (though it secretly isn't). Leigh's films are created through dramatic improvisation, which requires first and foremost a total trust of the actors' abilities to build, understand and evolve their characters to create reality. As a director this requires such a high level of giving and trust in your actors, it's really no surprise that few filmmakers employ it. For most movie makers are craftsmen turning out scripts, auteurs declaring a vision, but Leigh has taken the process to a truly communal place. When you consider the quality of his actors, it's really evident how the result is usually phenomenal.

The lives and characters embodied by these actors are usually the misfits of society (then again, who isn't?). Whether it's Naked's criminal Johnny, Vera Drake the abortionist, or eternal optimist Poppy, Leigh and his actor's characters live in a world that seems to have no simple place for them. Whether they deserve the consequences of this are quite beside the fact for Leigh. He's more interested in understanding people than making overreaching statements. And through his insight, and the insight of his collaborators we come to understand these people as well.

The trailer for Another Year

For his next film, Another Year Leigh continues to demonstrate his interest in people who seem to have found peace and the world that continually, inevitably antagonizes them. It received positive reviews in Cannes for not only Leigh but for, you guessed it, the performers.


Bill_the_Bear said...

I realize that I'm in the minority amongst this blog's readers...but Happy-Go-Lucky is right near the top on my personal of worst films of the decade.

The only thing that kept me from walking out...and I walk out of a film maybe once a decade...was Eddie Marsan.

S said...

Naked is one of my favorite movies. It was the first film of his that I saw.I've also really enjoyed secret & lies, happy go lucky, and grown ups. I'm currently working through his filmography on netflix.

@ bill bear
did you find her nonstop giggling annoying? lol

Volvagia said...

Mr. Bear. Yes, the character's kind of annoying. But...seriously, I almost gave up on the movie multiple times because of Eddie Marsan. Not that he's a bad actor or anything like that, but his driving instructions are really grating, much more so than anything Poppy said or did. And just when I was ready to get up and pop the disc out? An angry "Scott rant" to reenergize the movie.

John said...

Bringing up Secrets and Lies makes me want to have a Brenda Blethyn marathon. I hope for a rainy Sunday soon. I can't get enough of her.

OtherRobert said...

I thought Happy-Go-Lucky was a bit heavy on the message in the Marsan/Hawkins scenes, but otherwise was a very enjoyable and sweet little film.

Another Year seems like more mostly-positive Leigh, which is where I like him. Shoot. Even Vera Drake is mostly positive until the family finds out about the back alley operations. It's not intentionally sad or intentionally happy; it's just how life would play out...except for Happy-Go-Lucky. That one really played like an updated Odd Couple in a car during the Marsan/Hawkins scenes.

Burning Reels said...

I disagree - for me, the driving instructor scenes were electrifying.

I adore the care Mike Leigh has for his actors and characters - a great humanistic.

Mickche said...

I also do think that Leigh has care for his actors and so, he creates film which seem standard but are astounding.
BTW, Lesley Manville has been in 4 Leigh films including Another Year

Robert said...

Thanks for the correction Mickche. Actually according to IMDb she's been in even more than that.

Mike Leigh's filmography really goes much farther back than any of us were paying attention.

/3rtfu11 said...

Hawkins wasn’t snubbed they outright hated her character. I do too.

Danny King said...

I'm really not much of a fan of "Happy-Go-Lucky," but I'm holding out hope for "Another Year."

Guy Lodge said...

"Another Year seems like more mostly-positive Leigh, which is where I like him."

You might be in for a shock. Obviously, it touches on a lot of emotional bases, but on balance, I thought it one of his harshest films. (And his richest since Naked, I'm starting to think.)

MRRIPLEY said...

lesley manville was in 76's tv play nuts in may.

Brian said...

why no mention of TOPSY-TURVY??? i think it's one of leigh's very best, and demonstrated that his amazing attention to detail could be turned to a period piece as well. also happens to be probably the best movie ever made about the theatre, because he shows it in all its glory and its humdrum every-day-ness.

Jim Broadbent has never been better than as WS Gilbert in that film, I think

Amir said...

i haven't read your post yet. i will very soon.
but 'Naked' is in my top twenty favorite films of all time, and needless to say, my favorite Leigh.
In general though, Mike Leigh's one of my most favorite directors. i don't know why i connect with his movies so well, given their topics and my age! but somehow it always works for me.