As the BFI launches a season dedicated to the works of the legendary director, Steph Green offers a route into his very British canon...
Unapologetically British, wise-cracking misery: that’s our man Mike Leigh, and we love him for it. Throwing everything – including the kitchen sink – into his gloom-laden stories of families struggling against the world and themselves, his touching dramas and comedies have rightfully cemented him as one of the most beloved directors to come out of Britain. He achieves a trademark realism from his characters through endless rehearsals to devise the improvised scripts, giving his actors weeks to flesh out their roles with one another. It’s this approach that has helped him on his way to critical glory, with seven Academy Award nominations and five BAFTA wins under his belt.
It’s no coincidence that his films have catapulted endless British talent into long and celebrated careers too, from Gary Oldman to Tim Roth, Brenda Blethyn to David Thewlis. Adept at writing complex roles for both men and women, both period and contemporary, and inner-city and suburban, those who accuse his films as more of the same fail to appreciate the riches of his back-catalogue. As a painstaking chronicler of the quotidian who, in his later career, began to dabble in the period drama, Leigh’s admirable celebration of British stories and British actors have deservedly won him revere throughout his career.
Now aged 78 and reportedly working on his fifteenth feature, his work is being celebrated with a one-month film season at BFI Southbank and online on BFI Player. This starter pack highlights just some of the gems available to watch for any Leigh newbies out there…
The Gateway: Life is Sweet (1990)
The perfect distillation of Mike Leigh’s vision, Life is Sweet deals out comedy and pathos in equal measure. Starring two of his regular collaborators, Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman, we meet Wendy and Andy: a married couple living in suburban London with twin daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). While there’s an examination of thorny family dynamics, sexual deviancy, self-actualisation and bulimia, Leigh still manages to charm you with a witty script and a heartwarming reconciliation. As a director obsessed with giving a voice to ordinary people, his generous and dutiful depiction of the lives of one suburban family reveals a swell of intriguing ideas behind the floral-patterned surface.
For more tragicomic family life, try… High Hopes (1988)
The Beloved: Secrets & Lies (1996)
There’s a raw emotional power in Secrets & Lies and an honesty that feels so palpable that it feels almost intrusive to watch: the combination of a restrained Marianne Jean-Baptiste and a skittish Brenda Blethyn percolating into something truly special. A Palme d’Or winner and recipient of many Academy Award nominations, it’s rightfully Leigh’s most well-received work and considered by many – myself included – as his magnum opus. There are too many marvellous scenes to count: a seven-minute-long unbroken take when the two leads meet for the first time in a cafe, or an anxiety-filled BBQ in which the titular secrets and lies threaten to burst to the fore. It’s deeply compassionate and palpably powered by the honesty of human frailty and our capacity for forgiveness.
For more secrets and lies, try… Vera Drake (2004)
The Essential: Naked (1993)
While many questioned why a deeply unpleasant misogynist deserved the airtime to spew his pseudo-intellectualism, Naked is a fascinating character study of Angry Young Man Johnny, who deals in wit and wickedness in equal measure. Starring a never-better David Thewlis, Naked explores how rootless, struggling young people wading through a tattered post-Thatcher country were trying and failing to grapple with failed hopes and impossible expectations. Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp are heartbreaking as Johnny’s emotional punching bags, victims of the brutal squalor of their dead-end inner-city existence. This is a Mike Leigh film, though, so while there is misery, there is also plenty of black humour and sharp-tongued irreverence.
For more London-set angst, try… Meantime (1983)
The Weird: Topsy-Turvy (1999)
While the film itself, in terms of its composition and style, can hardly be called weird, Topsy-Turvy was certainly an odd departure from Leigh’s normal playing field. A lengthy period drama about dramatist-composer duo Gilbert and Sullivan in the late nineteenth century, it was a surprising U-turn from his trademark realism and domestic melodrama. While it at times feels bloated and overly contained, Topsy-Turvy’s meta appreciation for endless rehearsal and the importance of artistic integrity led many to compare Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert to Leigh himself.
For another Leigh/Spall period drama, try… Mr. Turner (2014)
The Underrated: Career Girls (1997)
You’d be hard pressed to find a Mike Leigh film that has been outright panned by the critics, but Career Girls is one entry in his canon that is often forgotten about. Perhaps it was considered somewhat disappointing due to its release immediately after Secrets & Lies, struggling to live up to its predecessor’s emotional power. But as a short, light-hearted look at two former friends – memorably played by Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman – finding their feet, filled with quippy one liners (“on a clear day, you can see the class struggle from here”) and a manically funny cameo from Andy Serkis as a London estate agent, it’s not to be missed.
For another 90-minute comic jaunt, try… Nuts in May (1976)
The Late-Career Masterpiece: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
Starring Sally Hawkins as the exhaustingly optimistic Poppy, Happy-Go-Lucky was Leigh’s attempt to finally turn his hand to something resembling cheeriness. His eleventh film, released 37 years after his suitably miserable-sounding debut Bleak Moments, was seen by many as a refreshing new addition to his filmography, pushing a lighter tone, though not without a few moments of darkness. While the central protagonist – a primary school teacher with a seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm – still possesses a trademark jittery mania, her unforgettable scenes with her dour driving instructor (an excellent turn from Eddie Marsan) possess electric moments of clashing energy that set your teeth on edge.
For more disarming charm, try… Another Year (2011)
The Mike Leigh season is now underway at the BFI Southbank and continues throughout October and November 2021. You can find out more about what's playing and get tickets here.