High Hopes by Mike Leigh
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I must have seen this movie at least six times before putting it on for Leah the other night but I didn't remember it being quite so funny. There's something about Mike Leigh and his movies that I always seem to remember them being bleak. I assure you this is a sweet and extremely funny film from him and featuring at least five superb performances.
Blurb: Another dose of Mike Leigh's slice of life film making, this time featuring the working class, strongly opinionated, socialist Cyril (Philip Davis,) his happy go lucky girlfriend Shirley (Ruth Sheen), his elderly conservative mother (Edna Dore,) social climbing sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her husband, the self-made businessman Martin (Philip Jackson.)
Thoughts: I admit, I spent weeks reading about Mike Leigh and his method of direction back in university for a small essay yet I enjoyed my research so much that the essay suffered from over preparation. So I excuse myself if this review suffers from over enthusiasm for my subject.
We meet Cyril and Shirley via Wayne, an extremely naive young man in London alone for the first time. From the opening credits Mike Leigh wastes no time in locating this film firmly within the working class mileau as a lost Wayne wanders the dirty rundown streets surrounding Kings Cross station.
This allows for a chance meeting with our main characters, a nice way for Leigh to introduce them whilst demonstrating several of the key character traits that will lead the movie, namely their working class nature, their affection towards each other and their willingness to help a complete stranger.
As almost always with Leigh, this is a movie that looks at the class structure within Britain but unfortunately he is a little heavy handed in his comparisons this time around. He offers a glimpse in to the world of his working class heroes Cyril and Shirley and then compares this with the lifestyle of his social climbing sister and her husband whilst offering a third couple, the Boothe-Braines, upper class, and the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Cyril. Sounds good on paper but what Leigh does is make everyone but Cyril and Shirley vulgar or a caricature.
In contrast, Cyril may well be a scruffy, idealistic, socialist who spouts Marxist catchphrases but these are imporatant aspects of his character that are developed throughout the movie.
They are weak and empty people who have turned their backs on their working class roots believing money is the source of all happiness. Multiple times the phrase "best that money can buy" is heard to be uttered from one or both of their mouths yet neither of them display even one percent of the happiness displayed by Cyril and Shirley.
Heather Tobias as Val is to the 80s what Alison Steadman as Bev was to the 70s, in Abigail's Party ten years earlier. She's loud and insensitive to others at all times whilst trying to appear glamourous and important, yet inside she's treading a very thin line, trying not to fall in to the oblivion of a nervous breakdown.
Val is really put through the emotional wringer in this film and Leigh chooses to show a large portion of this in closeup, I would imagine because Tobias has an extremely expressive face.
The extrovert performance of Tobias might be considered a little too much by the standards of other movies but in High Hopes it just plain works. It's almost a typical performance from a lead female in a Mike Leigh movie, he seems to have a habit of drawing very strong unreserved performances from them. After Alison Steadman, Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies is another prime example.
You might say that Edna Dore as Cyril's mother offers the complete opposite in terms of performance but the effect is no less powerful as we witness the everyday life of a woman who's been broken by life and still haunted by her own demons.
At this point you might be wondering where the humour and charm I mentioned at the start comes in to this bleak sounding picture. The interaction between the above two couples is filled with laugh out loud moments, some of the dialogue is one hundred percent perfect and the humour is naturally found in the situation. Of the many sight gags my favourite comes from a moment of marital strife and the petulance of Val in its aftermath, blindly storming out of her husbands used car dealership she attempts to walk between two cars obviously parked too close together before getting wedged in. On its own it is silly but the reaction of the character and the placement within the scene makes it work really well.
Most of the joy of the film comes from Cyril and his relationship with the always smiling Shirley.
From the moment Wayne arrives at their home it is obvious that these two people are perfectly happy and in love with each other. Cyril wants Shirley near at all times, he doesn't like to face anything without her; when he is told that this mum has had an accident he doesn't immediately race over to see her he first rides his motorbike home to collect a spare helmet for Shirley, drives to her workplace and then visits his mum. This behaviour runs throughout the movie and will go unnoticed if you don't look out for it. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster and they were two of the beautiful people this is the kind of relationship Jennifer Aniston would cry over not having.
Ruth Sheen as Shirley sets the template that Sally Hawkins would later draw on as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky but is much more down to earth and subtle than the latter version. She is Cyril's rock and she's happy to be that for him but she certainly takes no shit and doesn't hesitate to give him a good kick up the backside when needed. This give and take, and back and forth between them is the heart and soul of the film.
In a key sequence the couple visit Highgate cemetary to pay their respects to Karl Marx, a scene that has unexpected humour to sit alongside the serious nature of the moment and is perfectly shot in Leigh's customary style.
As with Secrets & Lies the action comes to a head at a family dinner party, with some domestic violence, a nervous breakdown, some unsubtle sexual suggestions, forced feeding and the obligitory foot in mouth moment from one of the characters. The movie builds towards this moment and you sort of expect some of it but when it comes you will be amazed at what you are witnessing. The outcome is actually much more realistic than the calm at the end of Secrets & Lies and is much more in keeping with the slice of life aspect of Leigh's storytelling. It also allows for one last beautifully constructed shot as the credits roll.
I really would love to know what you think of this movie and Mike Leigh in general and look forward to reading your responses in the blah below.
Life Is Sweet Billy Liar Trust The L-Shaped Room
Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
A Kind Of Loving by Stan Barstow