I can’t decide. Is Mike Leigh‘s latest film a duck or a rabbit?
An odd question, I admit, but please bear with me.
I’ve watched a score of his films over the years and I still can’t make up my mind about him.
Is he a filmmaker who produces insightful and compassionate depictions of human nature, or the creator of ghastly, patronising caricatures? I can’t decide.
It’s not that I swing between these two polar views from one film to the next. I hold them simultaneously while I’m watching one of his films. I feel as though I’m looking at one of those old-fashioned optical illusions. One moment I see the duck; the next the rabbit.
It’s another bittersweet study of modern life and stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a late-middle-aged, middle-class couple living in suburban London. Tom is a geologist and Gerri is an NHS counsellor. (Tom and Gerri! Mike, you are a card.)
At ease with their lot, Tom and Gerri serve as emotional life rafts to a couple of their less fortunate friends – Mary (Lesley Manville), a work colleague of Gerri’s, and Ken (Peter Wight), a boyhood friend of Tom’s. Equally lonely and unhappy, self-deluding Mary and self-loathing Ken ooze desperation from every pore. And as the story rolls through the four seasons, punctuated by Tom and Gerri’s regular trips to their beloved allotment, their happiness only gives a keener edge to their friends’ misery.
We’ve seen types akin to Mary and Ken before in Leigh’s work, but Tom and Gerri are something of a rarity for the director: a sympathetically drawn middle-class couple – albeit a pair whose backgrounds are salt-of-the-earth working class. A more typical example of Leigh’s treatment of middle-class characters would be the cartoonish yuppie couple in High Hopes, Rupert and Laetitia Boothe-Brain, or the evil landlord in Naked.
Leigh generally doesn’t get flak, however, for his handling of the middle-class; he’s more likely to get stick for his working-class characters. Some even accuse him of offering up a voyeuristic spectacle of lower-class lives for the delectation of middle-class cinemagoers. I don’t buy into that, but I do feel that Leigh’s working methods encourage his actors to tip over into caricature.
Ah, the famous Mike Leigh Method. You know, I’m sure, how Leigh develops his films. Slowly, painstakingly, with characters and scripts emerging out of months of one-to-one research and improvisation with his cast.
Actors clearly love Leigh’s method, returning to work with him again and again. Broadbent, Sheen, Manville and Wight are all Leigh veterans. And I’m sure they and Leigh will tell you that this creative process gives their characters a hinterland, makes them three-dimensional. Why is it, then, that they so often look to me like exaggerated caricatures?
Manville could probably tell you where Mary went to school, where her parents took her on holiday, the names of her childhood pets (or lack of them). What we see on screen is but the tip of the iceberg. So why then does she need to get a cheap laugh (and, yes, the audience does guffaw) by having Mary pause on the doorstep of Tom and Gerri’s home to adjust her knickers? Yes, I glimpse Mary’s hinterland in Manville’s performance, but I also see the self-indulgent mannerisms.
What do I know? The latest Oscar buzz has Manville tipped for an award and Another Year is supposedly a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. Yet I know viewers who found both performance and film so unbearable they left the cinema.
Some see only a rabbit, others only a duck. As for me, I can’t help seeing both.
On general release from 5th November.