Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mike Leigh retrospective - HIGH HOPES

After being involved in the successful "Play for Today" series of TV plays, Mike Leigh moved on to a feature film called HIGH HOPES. Leigh maintained his practice of gathering together a group of talented British character actors and improvising around themes of class conflict and real (as opposed to Hollywood-perfect) life. Leigh and his DP Roger Pratt depict late 1980s Britain as it really is - down at heel council flats, shambolic Victorian houses in the North of London and the occasion "fixer-upper" that has been transformed by people with a bit of money and some social aspirations. Against this suitably grimy backdrop, Leigh teases out the heart-break and drama in everyday situations.

In HIGH HOPES we have a loving but frustrated couple called Cyril and Shirley, played by the highly talented Philip Daviws and Ruth Shean. Cyril's a Marxist and, as such, in theory at least, a utopian. But in practice, Cyril is depressed by Thatcher's Britain and refuses to let his wife have a baby - the ultimate courageous and hopeful act. Shirley, by contrast, is a deeply warm and and loving persion, and is a socialist in a real sense - she cares about people and society. This manifests itself in this film by the fact that she actually listens to and cares for her ageing mother-in-law (Edna Dore) in sharp contrast to Cyril's sister and her brother in law.

The marital drama at the centre of this film, and the political question of translating abstract idealism into practical positive action are deeply compelling. I am less convinced by Leigh's handling of the class divide. His depiction of Cyril's sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) falls into the same trap as Beverly in ABIGAIL'S PARTY. Her costume, hair, accent and vocal inflections all cross the line of satire into crude caricature. The same goes for the characterisations of Cyril's mother's upper class neighbours. Despite the fact that Leigh has cast two superb character actors - Lesley Manville and David Bamber - he chooses to portray the rich neighbours as self-involved, superficial and cruel. There's no attempt to make three-dimensional characters. It's as if Leigh doesn't think the rich are worth the effort.

All in all, HIGH HOPES is a mixed bag. Cyril and Shirley's story is moving, thought-provoking, subtle and well-acted. Sadly it's surrounded by a wrapper of crude social caricature that once again feels like it's patronising the socially aspirant working-class and indifferent toward the upper= class.

HIGH HOPES was released in 1988 and won the FIPRESCI prize at Venice.

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