Mike Leigh is a director whose films are built around telling the stories of people. There are no superheroes, long action sequences or battles to the death. All of those conventions are important and necessary aspects of cinema, but they are no part of his films. Instead, the focus is honed onto the power of conversation, in both its presence and absence; indeed, some of the most telling and controversial aspects from Leigh’s films are often the things we leave unsaid and do not properly disclose. All of the Mike Leigh films I’ve seen explore the rippling, chaotic, damaging consequences of such an act. While there are plenty more Leigh films I need to see, here are a worthy selection of some of his cinematic talents.
It’s never nice to begin on a low note, but I should start by saying that this is the weakest Mike Leigh film I’ve watched to date. I’ve included it because it was also the first of his films I watched. It follows Sally Hawkins as Poppy Cross, a cheerful, bright and optimistic teacher. The polar opposite of her personality is then presented with Scott (Eddie Marsan), the literal driving instructor from hell. While I found the performances admirable, I never felt fully invested in the story or the way it was developing. Although I may need to give the film a second viewing and new chance, I doubt this opinion of mine will dramatically change. Nonetheless, given Happy-Go-Lucky was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, it cannot be wholly without merit.
Mr Turner (2014)
I have fond memories of watching Mr Turner last Christmas just after finishing my formative exams. This film represents the acting genius Timothy Spall at his best. Portraying the final 25 years of J. M. W. Turner, it presents the man behind such iconic, spellbinding paintings. To me, it demonstrated how all of us can love artistic creations but loathe the artist. Spall presents Turner as a bitter, twisted and deeply flawed individual well aware that, unlike his art, he is far from everlasting. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it represents how Leigh’s films rightfully receive international acclaim.
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Of the Mike Leigh films I’ve seen, Secrets & Lies is my favourite one to date. Why? Because the title reflects exactly what the film is. Leigh introduces us to Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle class optometrist desperate to find her birth mother. That turns out to be Cynthia, who is magnificently played by Brenda Blethyn and longs to see more of her brother Maurice (Timothy Spall). The film is a social commentary of belonging, finding out about our origins and past connections that are never fully broken. The conversations are raw, painful and emotional but manage to never be melodramatic or exploitative. To achieve both of those things is superb.
Vera Drake (2004)
Vera Drake is a film grounded in its time and setting. Based in 1950s London, Imelda Staunton stars as Drake, a working class woman who performs illegal abortions. The film captures the devastating horror women had to face simply for wanting control over their own body. There exists no dignity and no safety, only a complete sense of shame. So much of the film is framed around the unsaid, the secrecy and evading capture by the authorities. This entrapping notion of despair only fuels the challenges the different characters face. The importance of where power lies and who has access to it has never been more striking.
Another Year (2010)
Another Year‘s title may suggest a quite incidental film, but its depth of character narratives could not be more striking. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen star as Tom and Gerri Hepple, a couple living quite contently in East London. Their friends, meanwhile, are facing challenges of numerous proportions. Tom’s friend Ken (Peter Wight) struggles with his weight and alcoholic drinking. But it is Lesley Manville as Mary who portrays the darkest depths of unhappiness, desperate for any kind of love. As a film, it almost mirrors Secrets & Lies in the illusions we present to others and tell ourselves. The struggle of truth and the human soul is, therefore, a defining theme from all of Leigh’s memorable films.