A little burst of Mike Leigh material – a lengthy Mark Lawson interview, a documentary on Abigail’s Party, a reshowing of his 1976 TV film Nuts in May, and a viewing of his most recent film Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – provide a chance for some reflection on this director’s work. Leigh is a man who tends to attract strong opinions – his admirers, in particular actors who like working with him, are adulatory; others, including Dennis Potter as Lawson interestingly revealed, can be strongly critical (Potter saw Leigh’s work – and here we are obviously talking of the early TV films – as anti-working-class). I actually don’t share these strong opinions one way or another. Nothing of Leigh’s sends me into ecstasies, but on the other hand I have seen nothing I really dislike.
Of course most discussion of Leigh tends to concentrate on his particular methods of working with actors and the Lawson interview was no exception. As everyone probably knows the basic idea here is that the actors go through various people that they know in real life, together with Leigh select one, and then start to create a character working from birth onwards, accumulating every detail so that the actors can ‘become’ the characters. A discussion of this is reasonably interesting but what becomes annoying is the idea that this approach has some built in superiority to various other directorial approaches. It doesn’t and Leigh often appeared rather blinkered in the interview. This emerged particularly when he started to talk about his unwillingness to work with any Hollywood ‘stars’ and his distrust of the star ‘system’ ; not that he really provided any cogent or satisfying explanation of this. However I think that the reasoning goes that the star system works in such a way that the star brings far too much baggage, in terms of their accumulated public persona, for his character building mechanism to work properly. I have no doubt that this is true but the problem is that Leigh privileges his own particular approach over others and clearly does not appreciate the benefits which the star system bring. Perhaps all auteur directors have something of this blinkered attitude? No, that is not true because Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese, to name just three at the drop of a hat, are always generous and open and enthusiastic about their predecessors and influences. Leigh’s attitude borders on the self-righteous (if it does not cross-over into it).
But I suppose if he were a Welles or Ford, a Powell or Renoir, one would forgive him all this; genius makes its own rules. Leigh however is no cinematic genius. In fairness he probably wouldn’t claim to be. He makes enjoyable, slight films which work as well on the small as big screen. On the evidence of Nuts in May and Happy-Go-Lucky his work hasn’t really progressed that much in 32 years. Yes the later film is better made, more charming visually, looks better, but it is still far from awe-inspiring cinematically. Thematically Happy-Go-Lucky is clearly a sunnier, happier film than Nuts in May, let alone Abigail’s Party but then it sets out to be a sunny, happy film. The narrative, such as it is, concerns a few months in the life of Poppy (played with great skill and obvious delight by Sally Hawkins) a London primary-school teacher who’s aim is to ‘spread a little happiness’; at its heart is her encounter with an embittered, angry racist driving instructor called Scott whom she drives (sorry!) to distraction. How one will react to the film probably chiefly depends on how you react to Poppy’s character; personally I would run ten miles from such wearisome Panglossianism; I’d rather spend time with Abigail! But that’s a matter of taste. What concerns me more are the constant suggestions that this Leigh product is somehow ‘natural’, ‘realist’ in a way that other films aren’t. Let’s leave on one side all questions about the desirability or otherwise of realism. The fact is that Happy-Go-Lucky is just as manufactured as any scripted film; it is a matter of deliberate choice that Scott should be utterly twisted (with an almost stereo-typical unhappy family background); it is even more a matter of deliberate choice that Poppy’s elder sister, who lives a neat suburban life with her husband and is pregnant with her first child, should be shown as unhappy and resentful. There are plenty of people living quiet suburban lives who are reasonably happy with their lot and their are plenty of freewheeling singletons who are desperately unhappy. Now I am more than fine with some obvious polemic which suggests the opposite to this; overt social satire, dark portraits of unhappy people and communities. What I object to in Leigh is what appears to me the dishonesty of suggesting that what he portrays is all somehow ‘natural’ ; it isn’t – it is the result of artistic choices just like any other artistic product, film or otherwise. One small slip was revelatory in this respect; when Poppy and her sister are arguing Poppy says that she doesn’t want to worry about mortgages, pensions and so on; but as a teacher in a state school she would be a member of what still remains (just!) a pretty good pension scheme anyway. This was indicative of how Leigh’s realism only really goes so far. The opening shots of the film which show Poppy entering a London bookshop trying to engage in conversation with the surly book-seller were an obvious parody of Notting Hill, but unfortunately only set up expectations which the film certainly did not meet.
I am giving the impression that I don’t like Leigh’s work. This is untrue. I enjoyed both Nuts and Happy-Go-Lucky. But I enjoyed them as minor diversions, pleasant enough (barring getting annoyed with Poppy herself) for an hour or two. What I don’t believe in are the claims made either in respect of the superiority of the Leigh method or of any real weight being attached to the finished product.