“My films ask a great number of questions but don’t come up with too many answers. I hope I make films where you walk away… with work to do, arguments to have, things to worry about, things to care about. In that sense, I would regard what I do as political.” – Mike Leigh, filmmaker
During a recent visit from my grandma, she mentioned the great 1996 British film Secrets & Lies, which was the first Mike Leigh film I’d ever seen. I wound up enthusiastically recommending a handful of Leigh films to her, which is when I realized I’ve never met a Mike Leigh film I didn’t like.
As luck would have it, right after that visit a film of his (finally) came in on hold for me. I’ve always wanted to see his 1990 breakthrough film Life is Sweet, but until recently it was not available on DVD. Criterion just released a handsome new print of this gem of a film, and I wound up watching it twice before bringing it back.
For those unfamiliar with Mr. Leigh’s work, he often works with many of the same (fantastic) British actors, and focuses on the lives of working class/underrepresented populations in contemporary British life. Scripts start out as nothing more than a group of characters and a few possible story lines; dialogue and character development are shaped by months of brainstorming, improvisation, and rehearsal, all in full collaboration with his actors and crew. After guiding all involved through a series of loose improvisations, Leigh then builds up the film scene by scene—choosing some bits, reshaping or rejecting others—until he’s able to write it down as a screenplay and roll the camera.
For this reason, Leigh’s films often seem so utterly realistic as to be documentary, or as my grandma stated, “When I first saw that [Secrets & Lies] movie, I felt like I was really eavesdropping on those people. I felt like a fly on the wall or something. It was a very good film.”
You can take my grandma’s word on that. If you’re interested in checking out any of Leigh’s films, these four might be a good place to start:
Life is Sweet (1990) Equal parts touching and comical, this portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London features twin daughters who couldn’t be more different—the brainy and good-natured Natalie, and her sneering, layabout sister Nicola.
Secrets & Lies (1996) After her adoptive parents die, a young black woman seeks out her natural birth mother only to discover her mother is a working class white woman–the first of many surprises.
Vera Drake (2004) The true story of Vera Drake, a caring housewife in 1950s London who secretly tends to women who are looking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Happy-Go-Lucky (2010) Proving Leigh can direct an interesting portrait about just about anybody, he chose to make a charming film about a genuinely happy and good-natured school teacher, and how said happy person makes lemonade out of life’s daily lemons. This film was followed by a lovely portrait of a happily married couple in Another Year.
How about you? Are you a fan of Mike Leigh, or do you have any favorite directors?