30 January 2010

Mike Leigh: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

The film director Mike Leigh was perhaps originally best known for his BBC Plays for Today Nuts in May (1976) and, perhaps above all, Abigail's Party (1977). I had the privilege of seeing Mike Leigh answer questions about his first feature film, Bleak Moments (1971), at Broadway, Nottingham, which in those days was called the Nottingham Film Theatre. I was greatly impressed by Bleak Moments as it is a study in almost pathological shyness, and I can't think of anyone (apart from Jean Rhys in the world of fiction) who had previously dealt with such a subject, although there must, I imagine, be many – yes, hello, Kafka.

But – long after Morrissey of The Smiths had turned shyness and other odd traits into a badge of outsiderdom – Leigh continues to portray not necessarily shy characters, but those who are somehow out of kilter with what many automatically perceive as consensus reality. Leigh's Life Is Sweet (1991) mainly concerns an unemployed man who buys a clapped-out mobile fast food van in any attempt to make a living, and his friend, a non-family man with visions of becoming a celebrity chef by opening a restaurant called 'The Regrette Rien' after his idol Edith Piaf. These ventures are of course doomed to failure, as were the ventures of so many victims of Thatcher's insane ideas about people getting rich quick on the proceeds of their redundancy money - often by establishing businesses built on their own obsessions - from the industries that her government had in effect terminated.

Wendy (Alison Steadman), in Life Is Sweet , comments towards the end of the film that her husband Andy (Jim Broadbent) has not given up. I understand that what Jim has not given up is life, which their anarchist and probably anorexic daughter Nicola (Jane Horrocks) appears to treat with almost suicidal disdain.

Happy-Go-Lucky was seen by some reviewers as a somewhat more optimistic Leigh, although Poppy (Sally Hawkins) still seems, to me at least, to be deferring thinking by side-lining it, evading it, pretending it doesn't exist. But then, isn't that what so many people do all the time? How many of us have seen – in other people's houses – the ever-present TV set that acts as wallpaper to prevent any thinking from taking place? Mike Leigh remains a major figure of British cinema.

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