It seems to capture the spirit of most Mike Leigh films and, also like most Mike Leigh films, seems to have a collection of excellent performances. There's a certain stripped-down quality to Leigh's films that will probably agitate American audiences, but fascinates me. He completely betrays the standard three-act character arcs that make up most Hollywood films. He instead allows the actors to live inside his characters, and in that way, they become real people. Not that this process will always produce the most interesting films, but it's a testament to the genius of Mike Leigh that all of his films are interesting. In his three best films (Naked, Secrets & Lies, and Happy-Go-Lucky), Leigh has three totally different stories about three completely different sets of people. What ties them all together is the incredible depth of the people being followed on the screen. Let's take a look at the three films to see how Leigh employs different techniques to bring the best out of his actors to create some of the most fully-fleshed-out character development in cinematic history.
In what may be his masterpiece, Mike Leigh gives the movie audience one of its greatest challenges. Naked opens with its lead character, Johnny (David Thewlis), raping a young woman in a disgusting alley. For the rest of the film, we have to follow Johnny and eventually - if we're going to sit through this movie at all - empathize with him. And more or less, Leigh is able to pull it off. The film continues as Johnny walks drearily through industrial England, meeting various people, some of whom he has relations with and others he is meeting for the first time. By allowing Johnny to hob-nob amongst so many of the middle class, we begin to see Johnny as more than a monster and more a human being. Not that Johnny ever gives us a reason to actually like him. He spends the entirety of the film abusing people with his words, and occasionally with his hands.
So why does Mike Leigh dedicate an entire film to this elitist rascal? Because over the course of the encounters that Johnny faces, we see that all of his outward aggression is based on an inner turmoil. No matter how much emotional and physical pain he may extract on those around him, it never compares the amount of anguish that he expels upon himself. For all his pontificating snobbery, Johnny cannot find away to enjoy himself. Leigh doesn't show this by giving Johnny some drawn-out, contrived speech at the end of the film about his inner torment. Instead, this realization comes to the audience gradually over two hours of him stumbling from place to place, yelling at some people and being kinder to others. Leigh shows us every dimension of his personality, and by the end we feel like we didn't even remember him raping someone in the opening shot. How many films can say they can successfully made a rapist watchable for 131 minutes?
Secrets & Lies (1996)
This is, if you look up all those meaningless statistics, probably Mike Leigh's most popular film. Getting him Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture, Secrets & Lies gained Leigh the biggest audience he ever had - and probably will ever have. Unlike Naked, Secrets follows a group of people. Particularly, the Purley family, an English middle class family that includes a portrait photographer named Maurice (Timothy Spall) who acts as the erratic family's patriarch, and the neurotic Cynthia Rose (Best Actress nominee Brenda Belthyn) whose constant emotional breakdowns and lack of propriety agitate everyone else in the family. Things become even more jumbled when Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an adopted African Englishwoman, goes searching for the mother who gave her up, which in turn, ends up being Cynthia Rose. Despite the oddity of this discovery, Cynthia and Hortense begin a rich friendship, and Cynthia even introduces her to the family, though she keeps her true identity a secret.
As the title suggests, this family has a lot of buried secrets and Cynthia's masking of Hortense becomes just another on top of the pile, leading to an explosion of realizations when everyone in the family meets together for a party. The film pretty quickly glosses over the lunacy of a woman as white as Cynthia being the mother of someone as black as Hortense. This is probably for the best, since the relationship that ends up developing between Cynthia and Hortense is not much like a mother and daughter. It is this non-family dynamic that really disrupts the Purley family in ways that ruptures toward almost everyone involved. The story behind Secrets & Lies is notorious, with no script existing and most actors not knowing the nature of the family "secrets" until they are revealed to the characters in front of the camera. While this seems like a hacky way to bring out a realistic performance, Leigh really succeeds here, composing probably the best ensemble directing in all his films.
Mike Leigh's last film is probably one of his best and holds a lot of resemblance to Naked in how it follows one character through a series of seemingly mundane events. The main difference? While Johnny from Naked pines in his own self-loathing, the main character in Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is awash in self-confidence and happiness. Poppy is constantly going head-to-head with the cantankerous and combative people of middle class England (once again). At first, we don't really blame people for being turned off by Poppy, since her never-ending sunshine comes off slightly obnoxious and extremely annoying. When Poppy goes into a bookstore and meets with a grumpy bookseller at the open of the film, her need to bring a smile to his face seems almost antagonizing. Like Johnny, Leigh presents his main character in a highly unfavorable light, and now he will make us spend an entire film with them.
With Happy-Go-Lucky, though, Leigh actually does provide us with a scene that helps our opinion turn on her, and it comes fifty-five minutes into the film. As Poppy walks home at night, she hears a homeless man singing nonsense to himself in the middle of an abandoned warehouse skeleton. Poppy approaches him and it quickly becomes obvious that the homeless man is delusional and slightly crazy, but she stays with him, matching his nonsense words with meaningless answers. She gives this lonely man someone to talk to, even though he'd seem dangerous to most. She actually listens to him, even though he has nothing comprehensive to say, and she brings light to his dreary existence. Though there are many fantastic scenes in Happy-Go-Lucky, this is easily the best because it shows how strongly she wants to reflect her unbeatable happiness upon others. Many will criticize the character of Poppy and Hawkins' performance by saying that Poppy's attitude isn't any kind of realistic. Leigh does not give in to that criticism, trusting his actors and believing in the potential of his characters.
I was pretty upset when Hawkins' excellent performance wasn't given an Oscar nomination in 2009 (yet, Angelina Jolie was able to get one for Changeling. Cruel World), but Leigh did get a nomination for his screenplay, and while many will certainly downgrade how much he actually writes the screenplays for his films, I found it highly deserved. Like his other great films (Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, All or Nothing), Leigh forms the screenplay around his characters, and in this way they are able to actually be alive. This is why Leigh is probably the most unsung master filmmaker in America. I assume they appreciate him in England, though I don't know for sure. I certainly hope so...