CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

The next post will be on or before Saturday 30th June

CAN MIKE LEIGH DO HAPPINESS?

Some of Mike Leigh’s early movies were exercises in unremitting bleakness, or rather they showed just how miserable some people’s lives can be thanks to marital and other kinds of bullying. In Hard Labour (1973) an old charwoman played by Liz Smith is treated like dirt by her gruff, cantankerous husband, who in turn is bullied by an officious supervisor in his precarious job as a nightwatchman. Meanwhile the couple’s son, a gentle mechanic played by Bernard Hill (best known as Yozzer of Boys from the Blackstuff) is harassed by his pretentious nagging wife portrayed by that virtuoso veteran Alison Steadman (born 1946) who was also the wife of Mike Leigh from 1973-2001. That was preceded by the director’s first movie, made when he was 27, accurately entitled Bleak Moments, and summarised by one no-nonsense critic as ‘tortured semi-articulated anguish in suburban West Norwood’. However, Leigh’s is a complex and idiosyncratic talent, and even in the 70s he was capable of laugh out loud farce, best exemplified by everyone’s favourite, Nuts in May (1976). Here Steadman plays the gormless and submissive Candice-Marie married to the insufferable Keith (Roger Sloman, born 1946) both of them into spartan camping, the pious study of local history and fossil geology, not to speak of chirruping tuneless folk songs together and driving everyone around them mad. By contrast, my own Leigh favourite is the flawless 1993 Naked which is a fearlessly raw and uncompromising account of a young Mancunian vagabond at large in faceless nocturnal central London. The vagabond Johnny is played with impeccable brilliance by David Thewlis, born 1963, and his ranting apocalyptic eloquence (he knows vast chunks of Revelation by heart), and even more, his sexual and emotional neediness, are, I would agree, shocking and disturbing, but not in the last analysis bleak, for there are numerous moments of redeeming black comedy, and Johnny is anything but self-pitying.

Leigh has made 2 films overtly celebrating human happiness, both of them released close together over almost a 50-year career: Happy Go Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). The first one starred  Leigh regular, Sally Hawkins (born 1976) as a London primary school teacher perkily called Poppy, and idealistically portrayed as cheerful and kindly no matter what. At the start of the film, when someone is rude to her in a shop, she smiles and bears no grudge, and right after that, when her bike is pinched, her only sadness is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to it properly, so that even at this early stage one wonders if she is too good to be true. By that I mean if it weren’t for the dramatic foil of her incredibly disturbing driving instructor played to perfection by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) the film would be so sinewless, it might all but disappear.  Poppy’s monotonal happiness is a kind of rosy childlike innocence and much of her dialogue is a chuckling entirely harmless tit for tat banter. I think this is a significant Leigh statement, because in the film I will concentrate on, Another Year, we get almost an identical persona in the shape of Katie, the girlfriend of the son of the central happy couple, jovially if ironically named as Tom and Gerri. The husband, a geologist played by Jim Broadbent (born 1949) has had a long and happy marriage with Gerri (Ruth Sheen, born 1952) who works as a counsellor attached to a medical practice, and their only real worry is their son Joe, played by Oliver Maltman, who also had a part in Happy Go Lucky. Joe works as a solicitor specialising in housing problems, but is very tight lipped about personal matters, so they have no idea if he has a girlfriend, much less if he is happy or not. Eventually he springs a girlfriend on them by literally hiding and leaping out from behind the door with her, much to everyone’s hilarity. Katie has a demanding job as a residential social worker in an Old Peoples’ Home, and she like Poppy is cheerful, positive and bristling with light-hearted and inconsequential repartee. So already we perceive that happiness is frequently linked to a caring and selfless profession (social work, primary school teaching and counselling) and that when it comes to the younger end, Katie and Poppy, they banter and sustain themselves and cheer their often doleful and problematic friends by a sort of medicinal light-heartedness. This apparent conviction on the part of the director is made even more overt when twice during the film Gerri says with deep feeling to various friends who ask about Joe’s girlfriend (and, remember, with the authority of a counsellor):

‘She is lovely. She is really lovely.’

The finest acting on view is right at the start, where Imelda Staunton is a depressed insomniac housewife, interviewed first by her GP and subsequently by colleague Gerri. With her facial muscles alone, and barely any dialogue, Staunton portrays a whole nuanced range of despair, anger, resentment and a twitching stoniness that refuses to tell anyone what is really upsetting her. She believes if she gets a few nights sleep she will be able to cope, and is openly contemptuous of Gerri digging away at any irrelevant personal issues. But this counsellor not only has problematic clients, she has problematic friends, and the other virtuoso acting is that of Lesley Manville (born 1956) who plays Mary, her GP secretary colleague and old family friend. And apropos Manville and Sheen, it is worth reminding ourselves here that Leigh has a pool of tried and tested actors who appear and reappear in his films, and which to a certain  extent explains the sustained excellence of much of his work. Manville was the decorous Scotswoman in the 2014 Turner and the posh Yuppie in High Hopes (1988) and likewise Sheen was the great artist’s put upon and estranged wife, and also the council gardener wife of Cyril the Marxist  motorcycle courier in the earlier movie. Likewise, you will recall Jim Broadbent was Andy the catering chef and would-be burger entrepreneur in the excellent 1990 Life is Sweet, and in that film, happy though he was in many ways, he had a severely bulimic daughter (Absolutely Fabulous’s Jane Horrocks, born 1964) who gorged herself in secret and never left her bedroom. You could say that sweet as Andy’s life was in some ways, he had a major and horrific problem at close quarters, whereas with Tom the problems are much more at a manageable distance in the shape of neurotic friends.

Dysfunctional Mary then is the foil to the marital contentment of Tom and Gerri, one of whose major consolations and joys is their allotment gardening which punctuates the film at regular points (the healing potential of allotments is indeed rammed home by the counsellor at various points, and she tells someone at one of her barbecues that he too should grow tomatoes for therapeutic purposes). Brittle and nervous Mary is divorced and lives in a poky flat, and would love to have a nice man but finding one who is not a rogue nor a liar, proves to be elusive. She drinks a great deal and often discerns sexual attraction in public places when none is there. Absurdly she has a crush on Joe who she remembers as a little boy, and prior to his dating Katie she flirts with him and keeps suggesting they meet up for a drink with or preferably without his Mum. Invariably half cut and slurring her words, she has a habit of inviting others to confide their closest secrets, as she is, she believes, a sensitive listener. She offers her confessional role to both counsellor Gerri who smiles ruefully, and to the counsellor’s son, who in fairness to Mary does in fact behave in an ambiguously playful manner with a woman very much older. In any event Mary is fecklessness personified, and she gets so drunk at dinner with Tom and Gerri she has to stay overnight and collapses fully clothed on the bed. Manville is excellent at portraying Mary’s bleary loneliness when she has to go home to her empty flat the next morning, and throughout the film this gifted actor has her character staring naively at the people around her, trying to work out what it is they have that she doesn’t, and how just possibly she might acquire the secret of happiness.

And just as Gerri has her hopeless female counterpart, so Tom has an unhappy old college mate Ken (Peter Wight, another Leigh regular, born 1950) an office worker who is well on the way to an early heart attack as he drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and gets no exercise. He lives up in Hull as does Tom’s morose and unhappily married brother Ronnie, and Ken travels down for the weekend by train clutching an armful of cans from the bar and a giant packet of tomato crisps. Once he’s arrived in London, the old mates indulge in boyish horseplay with Tom leaping on Ken’s back just as Ken later shrieks and disconcerts Tom when he is making a careful shot in a friendly golf match.  Worryingly Ken has reached an impressively advanced state of bachelor piggery, for as he snorts up his food like a hoover (Tom is a gourmet cook) he is both swilling beer and glugging wine alternately. Later he admits his perennial loneliness, his hatred of his job, the fact that his favourite occupation of sitting in a pub is ruined these days by noisy and arrogant kids. Then drunk he breaks down as he remembers the death of a close friend, and Tom is so concerned he suggests that to lift his spirits they should go walking together in the Peak District in the autumn, stopping over in country pubs along the way. But Ken is a lost cause, and agrees to the pubs but not to any walking, something obviously beyond him by this stage. There follows a set piece where his hosts celebrate his arrival with a barbecue, and which dizzy Mary arrives at 3 hours late. Like many unhappy people, she believes that a single novel thing might change her life completely, and in this case, she acquires a little car very cheap from 2 dubious brothers who insist on being paid in cash. However she hasn’t driven since 1984, so the insurance is steep and add to that that coming to Tom and Gerri’s by tube for years, has meant she got completely lost in her car. While she swiftly homes in on still single Joe, hopeless Ken decides that he and Mary might make two happily united lost causes, and makes futile attempts to gain her attention. Instead Mary treats Ken very rudely and spends her time running away from him, just as when she later discovers Joe has a girlfriend, she is so shocked and put out she treats Katie with a blatant aggression and incurs Gerri’s indignation as a result.

The scene then changes dramatically to up north, for Tom’s sister in law has died suddenly, and the son Carl having broken off with both parents, Tom and Gerri go up to organise the funeral on brother Ronnie’s behalf. Ronnie is played by the reliably saturnine David Bradley (born 1942), well known for his Harry Potter and Game of Thrones parts, as well as his TV Dickens and stage King Lear. Ronnie is a Neanderthal Northerner at his worst, monosyllabic and borderline mute, and having been mothered all his marriage by his wife, he allows Tom to take over the catering for the funeral tea. At the cremation ceremony his ranting and alienated son Carl (played by Martin Savage) arrives late and he shouts embarrassingly at Ronnie for not delaying the service. Tom eloquently defends his brother, but Carl is unappeasable and even confronts his cousin Joe, nastily accusing him of staring at him. He also says at the funeral tea that his Dad didn’t love his Mum, and he briskly orders the neighbours who have come to pay their respects to get out. Tense as this showdown sounds, I was waiting for Carl pace classic Leigh to turn truly and squirmingly volcanic, instead of which it all turned to anti-climax and he stormed out to buy a bottle of wine and that was the last we saw of him.

The final section of the film reaches a kind of rounded conclusion but by an initially unpredictable route which ultimately for me turns formulaic. Tom invites his bereaved brother to come and spend a week or two with them, so that the mute man from Hull is transposed to leafy London where he sits alone watching the telly, apathetic enough to refuse an invite to his brother’s allotment. While the happy couple are out planting their tomatoes, hopeless Mary suddenly turns up unannounced, nursing a terrible hangover. Her car had predictably fallen to bits and the £20 the salvage garage gave her she had spent on a bottle of champagne.  Faced with stony Ronnie for company and no one else, anyone but Mary would have gone home, but instead she worms her way in where she finds herself chatting doggedly to the hawklike mute. She asks him a string of kindly questions but receives either monosyllables or a paralysing silence. Then bearing in mind both his bereavement and her own confessional skills, she comes out with the truly astonishing:

“Would you like a hug?”

Even this evinces no surprise in basilisk Ronnie, so that eventually she begs time out and lies down on the couch for a remedial snooze. At which point the happy couple return from the allotment, and for once Gerri loses her cool and reproves her hopeless friend in a way I simply did not believe of any credible counsellor. She is at first huffy and then accuses Mary of ‘letting her down’ but unless I was missing something, the only crimes Mary had actually committed were to turn up unannounced to see an old friend, and to be in a very low way emotionally. Surely no counsellor on earth would come out with that guilt-inducing formula, as in therapeutic terms it is the authoritarian parent reproving the adapted child, and you would wonder why a bright and clued up man like Leigh who writes as well as directs his films, would not know as much. In any event, after Mary’s wretched tears and contrite apologies, she is allowed to stay for tea, where she now observes 2 happy couples, Tom and Gerri and Joe and Katie, so vividly in contrast to herself and wooden Ronnie. The last thing Gerri had said to her was as a matter of urgency to go and see a counsellor and the film concludes with her staring diagnostically at everyone who is happy and wondering what on earth it is they are so privileged to possess and that she is not.

 

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