The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World

Ray Carney and Leonard Quart.
The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World.
Cambridge Film Classics Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0 521 48518 5 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Cambridge University Press)

Ray Carney likes Mike Leigh’s films. The blurb on the back cover claims that Leigh’s major works will be “shown to be among the greatest and most original works in all of cinema”. That’s a big claim. When his co-contributor, Leonard Quart, who provides a biographical and cultural introduction to Leigh’s work and a chapter on Naked (UK 1993), offers a mild corrective by suggesting that “Sometimes…he reduces his characters to their class stereotypes” (7), Carney takes Quart to task in a footnote. There are hints that Carney doesn’t think as highly of Mike Leigh’s later films, especially Secrets and Lies (UK 1995),voicing a criticism of its sentimentality. A shame then that no room was found in this consideration of Leigh’s films for his most recent works.

Ray Carney dislikes: mainstream American film/Hollywood (referred to interchangeably), ideological film criticism, cultural studies, psychological analysis, the directorial style of Alfred Hitchcock, star performances à la Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep. While some of these are mere mosquito-like annoyances and distractions, (poor old Hitchcock merits eight lines in the index), others have more serious implications for Carney’s approach, leaving him with a rather constricted range of techniques with which to critique Leigh’s films.

A bell jar descends over each chapter, each film. Carney devotes most of his discussion to performance, to the minutely-observed tics and nuances of character so prevalent in any Mike Leigh film – and in those of John Cassavetes, another great passion of Carney, who has also written the Cambridge Film Classics volume on Cassavetes and a British Film Institute monograph on Shadows (USA 1959). References to the period and locale of any given Leigh film are extremely rare, leaving one with the sense of floating in a peculiar no-time, no-place, which just doesn’t gel with the actual experience of watching a Mike Leigh movie.

Mike Leigh has a strong visual sense and an acute ear, having trained as both an actor and an artist. Think of the gormless Archie being quizzed by Mancunian Johnny about life in bonny Scotland while they’re standing on a seedy night-time street in Soho in Naked. A film such as Meantime (UK 1983) is strongly rooted in time and place, capturing visits to the dole office, the bleak environs of a public housing estate in London and the inarticulate oafishness of Coxy demonstrating his interest in a young woman by thrusting his crotch at her down the pub. One of Mike Leigh’s strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to straddle the particular and the universal, and by doing so elicit those half-funny, half-painful moments of recognition: those flashes of “I know a person just like that”.

Carney does offer flashes of insight into Leigh’s films. His observation that “You can count on one hand the number of scenes in which characters appear alone in Leigh’s work” (205) loses some of its force by being offered as an aside after an invective against “the Hollywood notion of starring”. Carney’s often-expressed dislike of ideological and sociological criticism (his terms) precludes him from fully exploring his insights at times. Carney points out Leigh’s reliance on characters undergoing breakdowns towards the end of his films, and identifies that childless woman virtually always equals messed-up neurasthenic in Leigh’s films, giving the examples of Barbara in Meantime, Valerie in High Hopes (UK 1988) and Monica in Secrets and Lies.

He is even able to bring himself to state that Leigh “clearly has it in for a certain kind of female character…” (269) but ultimately lets Leigh off the hook by suggesting that Leigh’s use of infertility is “not an observation about life, but a structural device” (267). Not good enough.
Multivalence is the highest term of approbation Carney ascribes to the work of Mike Leigh:

multivalence in the sense of the respectful portrayal of a group of characters, one point of view or “correct position” rarely privileged over another. If only Carney could extend the value he places on multivalence to the practice of film criticism. Other critics and theorists are barely mentioned, and, when they are, Carney finds fault with their analyses. Carney riding on his hobby-horse like Tristram Shandy‘s Uncle Toby, doggedly insisting that Mike Leigh’s works are “among the greatest and most original works in all of cinema”, and that anyone who disagrees is wrong, is not enough to make it so. Why choose such a goal, anyway? Cinema is not a boxing ring.

Ultimately this book reveals more of Carney’s world than Leigh’s, and Carney’s world is rather cranky. Embracing the world, indeed.

Mas Generis,
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Friday, 27 June 2003 | Last Updated: Friday, 27 June 2003

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Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →