Funny about- face

Mike Leigh has de­cided to look on the bright side, writes Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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