Where to begin with Mike Leigh

A beginner’s path through the hilarious and heart-wrenching tragicomic dramas of British director Mike Leigh.

Another Year (2010)

Why this might not be so easy

There aren’t many British filmmakers working today who could be considered a household name. It was a single television screening that did it: a repeat of a BBC Play for Today in August 1979. ITV was on strike, and an extended spell of atrocious weather kept people indoors. Sixteen million viewers tuned in to Abigail’s Party (1977) on BBC1. In the words of its director, “It became a legend.”

Mike Leigh is the great humanist of British cinema. His tragicomic portraits of working-class lives have seen him pick up a Palme d’Or, a Golden Lion, three BAFTA wins and seven Oscar nominations. He began his career on the stage, making his feature debut with the aptly titled Bleak Moments in 1971. It would be 17 years before he made another film for the big screen, having honed his craft with one of the most significant bodies of work in British television.

Mike Leigh filming Four Days in July (1984)RadioTimes/Immediate Media

Misapprehensions about Leigh’s ‘improvisational’ approach continue to linger. While it’s true that his projects begin life without a script – or even a fully-formed notion of what the finished film might become – the process is far removed from the actorly indulgences of a filmmaker like John Cassavetes. Leigh’s films are borne out of an extensive period of research and rehearsal in which the director works with his cast to create their characters. The actors will take people they know as a starting point, exploring their personal histories all the way back to birth. Relationships between characters are developed through extended improvisations that can last all the way up to the day of filming.

Only when cameras are ready to roll are these explorations pared down to the essentials of a ‘scene’. The key moment in Vera Drake (2004) in which the police arrive to arrest the lead character may account for some 20 minutes of screen time, but it was the result of a single improvisation that lasted an exhausting 10 hours.

It’s this studious dedication to finding the emotional truth of his characters that imbues Leigh’s work with such heart-wrenching humanity. His films may possess a social and political specificity, but his empathy for his characters’ needs, struggles and desires is universal.

Regular collaborator Timothy Spall sums it up best in Amy Raphael’s career-length study of the filmmaker, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh: “I’ve discovered over and over that he makes films at the centre of which he puts the sort of people who most other people are thankful not to be. He gives them nobility. Nobody makes the mundane more poetic than Mike.”

The best place to start – Secrets & Lies

If you were to make your way through all of Leigh’s film and television work chronologically, you’d get the sense that he’d been building to the knockout one-two punch that is Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996). The former is a masterpiece – and might just be Leigh’s best film, depending who you ask – but as an odyssey through a single protagonist’s dark night of the soul, it’s perhaps less representative of the work for which Leigh is best known than the Palme d’Or-winning family saga, Secrets & Lies.

Secrets & Lies (1996)

A piercingly insightful exploration of the dysfunctional emotional landscapes of modern Britain, this magnificent drama attests to Leigh’s peerless knack for balancing tragedy, comedy and all the grace notes in-between. The crux of the plot follows a young Black woman’s (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) search for her birth mother – a walking assortment of jangled nerves played by Cannes best actress-winner Brenda Blethyn. 

Frustrations and recriminations are on a gentle simmer from the off, en route to an explosive third act showdown. Down to the smallest supporting role, every character in the extended cast is beautifully drawn, and Leigh’s talent for storytelling is masterful. It’s a searingly honest, panoramic portrait of the different ways different people try to get by. Like the best of Leigh’s work, it contains multitudes.

What to watch next

When it comes to Leigh’s family dramas, you could head back to 1983 for the remarkable Meantime. Set against a grim backdrop of recession and unemployment in the Thatcher years, the film features early-career performances from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. It’s interesting to note that Leigh’s contemporary, Ken Loach, is usually the one pegged as a political filmmaker, but watching the likes of Meantime or High Hopes (1988), it’s clear that Leigh is every bit as politically motivated as his peer, swerving Loach’s tendency for didacticism in favour of a worldview borne out of character and embedded in the very fabric of the film and its milieu.

Meantime (1983)

All or Nothing (2002) and Another Year (2010) are two more family dramas that, in temperament, couldn’t be further apart. The former is a bruising tale of a marriage on the rocks, featuring a heartbreaking pair of performances from Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, while Another Year finds Leigh at his most exquisitely tender. Structured in four seasonal acts, the film stars Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a contented middle-class couple, and a dazzling (as ever) Lesley Manville as Sheen’s emotionally struggling work colleague. There’s little plot to speak of, but as with so much of Leigh’s best work, the principle pleasure comes from simply hanging out with these vividly inhabited characters.

Leigh’s work for television shouldn’t be overlooked. Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May (1976) are the best known, and both hilarious, but for Leigh at his funniest, try the raucous Grown-Ups (1980), which culminates in a tremendous set-piece of comic staging. Elsewhere, The Kiss of Death (1977) and Home Sweet Home (1982) are both excellent, the former, especially, being an oft-overlooked gem in Leigh’s filmography.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Of his four historical dramas, which include the Venice Golden Lion-winner Vera Drake, a recreation of the events leading up to the Peterloo massacre (Peterloo, 2018), and a biopic of artist J.M.W. Turner starring a gaseously guttural Tim Spall (Mr. Turner, 2014), Topsy-Turvy (1999) comes out tops. Bringing the Victorian era to vibrant life through a vast ensemble cast, the film follows Gilbert & Sullivan as they mount their comic opera The Mikado. Rich in period detail, and elegiac in its acknowledgement of the limits of the creative process, Topsy-Turvy finds Leigh at his most formally exciting, attesting to the adaptability of his thematic preoccupations and unique working methods.

Where not to start

“There is no piece of work for which I’ve been responsible as director by which I’m embarrassed, apart from Abigail’s Party.” While there’s certainly no need for Leigh’s embarrassment – “it is appallingly lit. It is sloppily shot” – the TV production that made his name can’t escape its provenance as a filmed play, and, as hilarious as it is, doesn’t say much about Leigh’s gifts as a filmmaker. Also brutally funny is the short one-hander A Sense of History (1992). An outlier in Leigh’s filmography, it was written by his pal Jim Broadbent, and stands as the only film on his CV not devised by the filmmaker.

While not an ideal place to start, perhaps, one film of Leigh’s that deserves more attention is Career Girls (1997). An intimate portrait of female friendship that flashes backwards and forwards between the the central duo’s first meeting, and a rekindling of the friendship a decade later in London, it’s a loose, freewheeling character study marked by two terrific performances from Lynda Steadman and the late, brilliant Katrin Cartlidge. Relaxed, funny, a little weird, and boundlessly compassionate, it’s a small, neglected work that landed between two heavy-hitters in Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, and is ripe for rediscovery.

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