Mike Leigh

Sean O’Sullivan,
Mike Leigh
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-252-07819-4
US$22.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Illinois Press)

Not many films that run for 129 minutes leave me wishing they wouldn’t stop – and that they would linger longer over certain glorious compositions – in the way that Mike Leigh’s most recent production, Another Year (2010) did. Leigh takes us so potently inside the lives of his characters that we feel we know everything about them to this point in their lives, more in fact than they know about themselves or each other. How does he orchestrate his collaborators to achieve this?

As a devoted admirer of Leigh’s films, I am eager to read any new work that appraises his extraordinary list of credits over the last several decades. For reasons that will become clear, this eagerness stumbles over the latest book in the field, Sean O’Sullivan’s academic treatise on the work of the iconoclastic filmmaker. The most rewarding thing in the book is the extracts from interviews with Leigh which form a conclusion: here, without the preceding guff, we get some real insight into how these films came to be the way they are.

O’Sullivan seems less concerned with bringing the films to a sort of life on the page than with dissecting them within an inch of their lives. Again and again one reacts to the sense of academic posturing, of pushing theories, of insisting on parallels, of making the films fit the theories rather than using critical ideas to illuminate the films themselves. In a sense, the book emerges as a case of auteurism gone mad. It is one thing, say, to identify recurring motifs that may help us to understand a director’s preoccupations, but this is pushed to absurd lengths. For instance, both Cynthia Purley (of Secrets and Lies [1996]) and the eponymous Vera Drake (2004) share the middle name of Rose. What could this mean? Perhaps they are both prickly? No, the link is that Cynthia comes face to face with the result of a pregnancy she’d forgotten about and Vera helps young girls ‘in trouble’. Is there any possible value in noting this middle name, almost never used, in two films eight years apart? Or the notion that “married couples or siblings who share initials (such as Nicola and Natalie in Life Is Sweet (1990), Maurice and Monica in Secrets and Lies, and the family of Rachel and Rory and Penny and Phil in All or Nothing [2002]) also often reflect two linked but disconnected characters” (16)? Or equally bizarre the linking of Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year on the basis of, respectively, Poppy’s and Mary’s driving problems. (132)

The author is so determined not to slot Leigh into the social realist category or, as he says in his off-putting opening sentence, “the kindly ghetto in which he has been placed by his well-meaning enthusiasts” (1), that he ties himself into linguistic knots to avoid seeming to agree with anything that’s ever been written on Leigh before. He doesn’t make much direct reference to all these misguided predecessors who have “typically considered [Leigh] an unassuming crafter of little movies, an English social realist”, so that it is hard to know what he is crusading against. All one can be certain of is that everyone else has been wrong, that for others, stressing the humane orientation of much of the director’s output, “Leigh stands for the organic in a world of genetically modified filmmaking” (7). The sneer is aimed at those who are unlikely to embrace O’Sullivan’s lego-building approach to the dis-assembling and re-assembling of the films at the end of which they don’t seem much like the actual films one has admired.

The other group of analysts with whom he takes issue are those “who wish to associate Leigh with a tradition of British cinema that goes by the name of social realism, which traces its roots to the documentary movements of the 1930s, the Free Cinema of the 1950s, and the New Wave of the 1960s and whose most prominent contemporary practitioner is Ken Loach” (7). There may be some kind of ‘line’ here, but all of the exemplars referred to, or inferred, have individualities of their own which make the umbrella terms useful but not exclusive ways of identifying their outputs. For my own part, in a brief note I wrote of Leigh’s return to cinema in 1988’s High Hopes as “a triumph of realism streaked with an anarchic Swiftian satire: his films are not realism ordinaire as, say, Ken Loach’s are; they demand a flexibility of response to their sometimes unsettling modal shifts.”[1] I quote this not to draw attention to my analytical acuity but just to suggest that O’Sullivan’s wholesale dismissal of earlier accounts of Leigh’s oeuvre is just too sweeping. Writing at book-length, Tony Whitehead perceptively develops the idea that in Leigh one finds “the dialectic between the real and the unreal characteristic of many British films and fundamental to much comedy”.[2] This is not the place for an assessment of the critical discourse on Leigh; I want only to suggest that O’Sullivan, in the prosecution of his own agenda, has grossly over-simplified its antecedents.

His agenda sounds in fact irreproachable insofar as it involves investigating “the balance between realism and artifice” (5), and to be fair there are some useful insights to be had along the way – when things are not being obscured by convolutions of thought and language. He “propos[es] three terms or concepts to understand how Leigh makes movies” (15): they are the ‘unbroken shot’, the ‘side-by-side’, and the ‘centaur’. The first of these appears to be no other than the long take, and anyone familiar with Leigh’s films will immediately think of its magisterial use in such films as Secrets and Lies (the book’s cover reproduces a still from the famous 8-minute shot of Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in the café) or most recently the stunning last moments of Another Year. The ‘side-by-side’ is really a two-shot, whether of women nursing babies in Four Days in July or of the sisters in Life Is Sweet. There is plenty of analysis, often quite astute, of the use, sometimes in tandem, of these two cinematic techniques, which hardly need their new names, but it is the third, the ‘centaur’ which seems to obsess O’Sullivan.

He claims it “connects to the unbroken shot in that information is compressed into one shot that might more commonly be dispersed into two or more, and to the side-by-side in that it involves the collision of two distinct entities” (17). The ‘centaurical’ shot seems really no more than a juxtaposing of two of almost anything, either physical (bodies or parts of them) or psychological (e.g., pregnancy) or “between one incomplete version of experience and another incomplete version of experience” (87). In regard to the latter, he uses this very strained metaphor of the centaur to compare what might superficially seem very diverse films, such as Career Girls (1997) and Topsy-Turvy (1999). The fact that the author has to keep reminding us about manifestations of the centaur effect (as late as page 121, “And we have seen the centaur as a dramatic construct before”) tends to suggest that he is not too sure we’ll have grasped it – and that he wants to be remembered for its ingenuity.

There is just too much straining to be memorable, too much wearisome and unrevealing repetition of perceptions such as that relating to Leigh’s use of horizontal and vertical. Four Days in July (1985), for instance,”begins … with a dominant verticality that chops the horizon into bits and pieces” (43). Is this really a helpful way of introducing a long shot of an alley with various openings and a couple of obscure figures at the end? Does the comment a little later about “an arena of emplottedness [sic], governed by a rectilinear system that privileges territory over people” (45), say anything further that one can be bothered disentangling from this clotted prose?

Despite all these misgivings about the book, there are certainly some interesting, even provocative groupings as O’Sullivan trawls through the Leigh filmography. For instance, his pairing of Career Girls and Topsy-Turvy, noted above, may seem eccentric but he does manage to extract some pertinent aesthetic/structural affinities that make the comparison rewarding, and this is also true of his ‘side-by-side’ job on Naked and Secret and Lies, the two films which made Leigh an international name. This pair had in common characters drawn from all over the United Kingdom, were socially much more inclusive than their predecessors, and “there was a perception of a quickly “apprehensible” universality to the ostensible themes or genres of the two films” (56). The chapter goes on to draw some revealing parallels between the two women in Secrets and Lies (Hortense as “a full-fledged agent of plot”and Cynthia as “a plotless character waiting to be activated” [61]) and between the two most famous sequences in the two films: the café meeting in Secret and Lies and the long discussion between the rootless Johnny (David Thewliss) and the security guard Brian (Peter Wight) in Naked. At the heart of the study of this pair of films is this: “If Naked is predicated on difference – Johnny’s difference from the world around him… Secrets and Lies may be predicated on familiarity, with all the implications of the ‘familial’’(77).

At its best this book can make us reconsider Leigh’s preoccupations and how, as artificer, he has realised these in his films. One can only wish that the ‘best’ was not so often cluttered with a dubious inflating of detail in language of off-putting pretension: ‘maiuetic’ and ‘chiasmus’ indeed! I don’t suppose the author was expecting a general readership but I can’t help feeling a pang for students who will have to hack their way through thickets of thought and diction in the hope of stumbling upon nuggets of insight.

[1] The Encyclopedia of British Film, 3rd edition (London: Methuen, 2008) 433.

[2] Tony Whitehead, Mike Leigh (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007) 9.

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane is the author or editor of over 20 books and hundreds of articles on film and literature and related matters. He co-edited the Oxford Companion to Australian Film and was compiler, editor, and chief author of The Encyclopedia of British Film, and most recently he published his memoir, Real and Reel, a light-hearted record of a lifetime’s obsession with the movies – and with writing about them. He is an international authority on British cinema and on the adaptation of literature to film. In Australia he is known as a regular reviewer in The Age, Australian Book Review, Metro and Inside Story. He lives in Melbourne and is currently serving as Adjunct Professor, Swinburne Institute of Social Research, Swinburne Institute of Technology and as Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University.View all posts by Brian McFarlane →