Tag Archives: Mike Leigh

Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)

From the opening credits, Andrew Dickson’s score sets the tone for Secrets & Lies. It’s going to be severe. I don’t think there’s a light moment in the score–any of the film’s lighter moments, usually involving Timothy Spall’s ability to make people smile (he’s a photographer, so it’s a good ability), are mostly silent. The film’s simultaneously a marvel of acting and filmmaking; Jon Gregory’s editing, director Leigh’s composition, Dick Pope’s photography, they all enable these unbelievable performances from the cast. Leigh’s script (or his concepts for the story) are also essential. The film’s characters are mostly ragged from the start, with the single exception of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as far as principals go). Jean-Baptiste is a satellite unaware of the other people she’s orbiting and even though Leigh forecasts the film’s structure from the second or third scene, it still comes as a shock when he crashes everything together. The film, which runs almost two and a half hours, has a singular structure and pace.

Little by little, Leigh and the cast build their characters and their characters’ relationships until the showdown. Everything before would be prologue if it weren’t for Jean-Baptiste, who’s the closest thing to a protagonist. She’s the one who inadvertently sets off the present action, even though she’s desperately trying to remain as passive as possible. She’s looking for her birth mother, not knowing anything about the birth mother (Brenda Blethyn in a spellbinding performance) or Blethyn’s family situation.

Top-billing goes to Timothy Spall, which is sort of appropriate–at least given the first act of the film–but once Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s story takes over, it’s really not his film anymore. Only it’s going to have to be his film again later, something Leigh has carefully established with the precise narrative. It’s not just how the scenes run together, it’s how Leigh directs each one. How he directs the actors, how he and editor Gregory cut each scene, how Dickson’s music seemingly compels the characters’ behavior. Secrets & Lies never shies away from being serious about its subject, this extended family in inadvertent ruin. Most of the time, with the exception of Jean-Baptiste, Leigh shoots the actors in close-up. The film rises and falls with their expressions and performances. It’s a good thing he gets such great performances out of them, even the most supporting players (for instance, Lesley Manville has a scene and a half and is spectacular).

The main cast–Spall, Jean-Baptiste, Blethyn, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook–are all wondrous. The amount of emotion Leigh gets each of them to convey, the complexities of those emotions–especially between Blethyn and Rushbrook, as clashing mother and daughter respectively–is something to behold. Logan has her own somewhat detached subplot, which gives her more and more to do as it comes closer to the rest of the narrative. She’s great. It’s impossible to enumerate the performances. Everyone’s just too good.

Secrets & Lies is long without ever being lengthy, weighty without ever being tiring. Leigh masterfully crafts this picture, essentially aided by his actors and his crew. It’s an astounding motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jon Gregory; music by Andrew Dickson; production designer, Alison Chitty; produced by Simon Channing Williams; released by Channel Four Films.

Starring Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Lee Ross (Paul), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Ron Cook (Stuart) and Lesley Manville (Social Worker).


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Happy-Go-Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

I’m not sure how I feel about Panavision Mike Leigh. Dick Pope’s cinematography–and the film’s overall color scheme too–is very vibrant. Happy-Go-Lucky is a peppy, bright, Panavision Mike Leigh film. It’s got a loud–good, but loud–score (from Gary Yershon); the score’s peppy too. There’s a very definite arc to the film, with a predictable ending. It’s improvised like the rest of Leigh’s films, but it’s going for a different effect–it’s a comedy. If Hugh Grant showed up in Happy-Go-Lucky, he wouldn’t be at all out of place. In fact, he might even be a good addition to it.

The film has a deceptively small dramatic vehicle–always happy schoolteacher and all around nice person Sally Hawkins has her bike stolen so she has to learn to drive, introducing her to misanthropic driving instructor Eddie Marsan. Will Marsan eventually fall under her–unintentional–spell? I spent most of the film hoping not, since the driving scenes would only add up to something–other than just being Hawkins in driving classes, not an epical framework for a narrative–if there’s a culminating scene with Marsan freaking out and screaming at her for being so happy.

So happy-go-lucky.

The film presents Hawkins as a little annoying in her constant jubilance, but she is a good person. There’s a scene–maybe in the middle–where it’s clear Hawkins is such a good person, she sometimes puts it before her personal safety. So raising the question of her motives for her behavior in the conclusion and subjecting the viewer to a traditional romantic comedy self-reflective montage… it’s wrong. Happy-Go-Lucky spends most of its time meandering, only to get real close to attaining something special at the end, then decides to be a romantic comedy instead.

It’s a Mike Leigh movie with an intentional comic set piece. Sure, Karina Fernandez’s flamenco teacher is hilarious–but it’s a fake moment in a Mike Leigh film. It’s a good, fake moment, exactly the type of thing a theater-full of romantic comedy goers would love to see. I really enjoyed it, but it’s the type of thing where the followup joke involves Hugh Grant learning to flamenco.

Hawkins is great, no question, as is Marsan. She makes the character work, usually during the quiet scenes. The supporting cast is all solid–Alexis Zegerman plays her roommate (there are a few comments about the pair having a romantic relationship, but it’s all in jest… the movie might have worked better if it hadn’t been), Samuel Roukin’s her romantic interest (they have a lovely romantic comedy conclusion).

The stuff Leigh drops–the unique material Happy-Go-Lucky initially tries to discuss (racism, abuse)–is almost forgotten by the end. The lengthy comedy material makes it all disappear, swept under the carpet during one of the funnier scenes perhaps.

But Leigh also introduces the idea Hawkins’s innocence, her demeanor, will eventually land her in hot water. He exploits the viewer’s concern for the character, the concern he’s created for just that reason–to add tension to a number of scenes. It’s a standard move, occasionally honest, occasionally not, always with good acting from Hawkins. But the move’s a middling one, not the kind of thing I expect from Mike Leigh, lovely Panavision composition or no lovely Panavision composition.

Oddly, Leigh’s a great Panavision composer. His shots are magnificent… like he spent more time on how the shots look than what goes on in them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Leigh; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Jim Clark; music by Gary Yershon; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Simon Channing Williams; released by Momentum Pictures.

Starring Sally Hawkins (Poppy), Eddie Marsan (Scott), Alexis Zegerman (Zoe), Andrea Riseborough (Dawn), Sinéad Matthews (Alice), Kate O’Flynn (Suzy), Sarah Niles (Tash), Sylvestra le Touzel (Heather), Karina Fernandez (the flamenco teacher) and Stanley Townsend (Tramp).


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