British Grit

26 Sep 2013: High Hopes (DVD, 1988, Mike Leigh)

I’ve responded strongly to all of the few Mike Leigh films I’ve seen thus far, but this is the one that feels the richest and warmest. To my taste the music still tends to intrude overmuch upon the emotions and the moods of the narrative – something I felt particularly diminished Naked – but even with that caveat this story is riveting and compelling from start to end. Every social stratum gets skewered – the middle class, the aspirational class, the working class, the elderly and the young – yet Leigh decidedly takes sides here without facilely exalting or glossing over even the preferred characters. This enables him to not only depict the flaws and ridicule the pretensions of the ignorant, which he does do with great humor and skill here and in his other work, but also (unlike, say, a Woody Allen) establish some basis for empathy and humanity. There’s an honest and earnest but unromanticized view of love both familial and within a relationship that is refreshing in its respect for its characters’ philosophies (and shortcomings) and its realistic treatment of their economic state. Though not in the standard over-the-shoulder forward-reverse style of so many other films, one-shots of individual faces are adeptly employed to show reactions even upon the most silent and apparently impassive expressions, with often lengthy takes held to leave space for this to sink into us and the listeners in the scene – one of the most moving shots is a particular take of the old forlorn mother to two bickering siblings offscreen, staring at nothing in particular as the din of heated argument fades from the sound mix into silence. Much is bleak and (again) fatalistic, but uncharacteristically for Leigh there’s a substantial sense of plausible optimism at the end that suggests a saner and simpler way forward than the people in or watching the film may have considered.

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