Funny about- face
Mike Leigh has decided to look on the bright side, writes Stephen Applebaum
MIKE Leigh is reeling off some of the comics that have inspired him. He was raised on the Ealing comedies, the Boulting brothers and the Goons. He’s a fan of Buster Keaton and the Marx brothers, and ranks Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot among his favourite movies. He could go on: ‘‘ I’m a sucker for a laugh, basically,’’ he says, smiling.
While comedy has always been a part of his work, no one expects to come away from a Leigh film with a spring in their step and a warm glow. For more than 30 years, the auteur from Salford, in England’s northwest, has been telling stories about the tragicomic lives of ordinary folk doing the best they can to get by.
The humour is quite often as bleak as the world of his characters: a whistle in the dark, a way of holding back the tears.
So one of the biggest surprises at this year’s Berlinale festival was Leigh’s latest offering, Happy- Go- Lucky , a film that pushes comedy to the fore and the closest Leigh has come to making a feelgood movie.
Even given his assertion that he has always tried to make each of his films different, HappyGo- Lucky is unexpected. It is not only poles apart from his previous movie, the harrowing Oscar- nominated abortion drama Vera Drake , but from everything he has done since his aptly titled 1971 debut, Bleak Moments .
What got into him? ‘‘ All I do, and all I’ve ever done, is make films that reflect my response to life,’’ Leigh says. ‘‘ And life is comic and tragic and positive and negative and joyful and painful, and this film is no exception.’’ It is ‘‘ absolutely a comedy’’, but its intent is ‘‘ absolutely serious, and it has its dark side as well’’.
The project began with him wanting to make a film with Sally Hawkins in the lead ( she’d had small parts in All or Nothing and Vera Drake ).
‘‘ She has positive energy and she has this kind of openness and humorous but serious take on things,’’ Leigh explains. ‘‘ She played very different characters in my other films, so I just felt, yeah, we could make a character who was multifaceted and who was complex, but energetic in some way.’’
As is well known by now, Leigh does not begin with a script. Instead, he works one- to- one with his actors to get the basis of a character before constructing scenes and dialogue through months of improvisation and collaboration.
Actors meet other actors only if their characters meet, and they know only as much as their character knows, as in real life.
‘‘ You have to go into a Mike Leigh film thinking, ‘ I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know where I will end up, what I’m playing, what film we’re making, or if, actually, I will end up on the cutting- room floor at the end of it’,’’ Hawkins says.
Actors who work with Leigh often describe the process as exhausting and frightening, but ultimately rewarding. For some, though, the idea of stepping into the unknown is too big a risk.
‘‘ Occasionally you get actors who say, ‘ I can’t deal with that’,’’ Leigh admits. ‘‘ I say, ‘ OK, that’s it. Fine.’ And that’s the end of that relationship.’’ He laughs. ‘‘ There are plenty of actors queuing up that want to do it.’’
Together, Hawkins and Leigh created Poppy, an incorrigibly happy north London school teacher who takes everything that life throws at her, including Eddie Marsan’s unbalanced driving instructor Scott ( the yin to Poppy’s yang), in her stride. Serious when required to be, compassionate, open and optimistic, she is the opposite of the negativism that Leigh says is consuming people at the moment. This is not him hiding his head in the sand, he insists, or retreating from the grim reality of his other work.
‘‘ At the beginning of the 21st century, there is no question that the world is on a disaster course. We know that. But I think it is becoming fashionable to be miserabilist and to celebrate the doom of our condition.’’
On the other hand, there are people such as Poppy who are ‘‘ getting on with it’’, he says. ‘‘ If you didn’t actually believe in the future you would close all the schools, you would gas all the kids and ban birth, because it’s not worth it. But that’s not what we do because we believe in it. So, you know, there is a case for being positivist, and I wanted to make a film that somehow celebrated life. For a change I thought I’d do that.’’
Leigh was political from a young age, and in his teens was a committed member of Habonim, the secular Jewish socialistZionist movement that also counts comic Sacha Baron Cohen and playwright Arnold Wesker among its alumni.
His work is often, if not overtly, political, with 1984’ s Meantime capturing vividly the boredom and alienation of the Thatcher era’s unemployed youths. I suggest that Poppy and the embittered Scott seem to evoke the mood at the beginning and end of the Blair years respectively.
‘‘ However, however, however,’’ he insists, ‘‘ this film is not about London and it is not about England. It’s not a statement about any of that. It’s a universal subject.’’
If Leigh is surprised at how things have turned out, no less surprising is the way that he — to some people the miserabalist’s miserabalist — has become a messenger for positivity. Hawkins would love to play Poppy again. Would Leigh contemplate a sequel?
‘‘ No chance,’’ he says, sharply. ‘‘ Life is too short to expend time, effort, energy or, most importantly, money, re- investigating characters when there are so many other films that one would like to make, if only anyone would give us the money to do so.’’ Happy- Go- Lucky will be released in June.
Getting on with it: British director Mike Leigh, the
miserabilist’s miserabilist’, has a change of heart in his new film Happy- Go- Lucky
Positive: Sally Hawkins, left, and Sinead Matthews in Happy- Go- Lucky