Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Review: High Hopes (1988) Dir. Mike Leigh

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.

Mike Leigh is an intelligent film maker, he might be heavy on the social commentary at times but he very rarely suffers from Downton Abbey syndrome, preferring to simply show you the facts as he sees them rather than beat you over the head repeatedly with forced dialogue, "things are changing!" and the like.

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.

This exterior shot might go unnoticed by the casual viewer and is one of the few subtle examples used by Leigh. Mostly he relies on the stereotypical behaviour of an uncaring and selfish husband and wife team, only interested in appearances and money. Their behaviour is abhorrent, every kind thing they do is done grudgingly and every action seems like an extreme. The performances from Leslie Manning and David Bamber are still strong, they are like a train wreck that you just can't turn your eyes away from, but it's with instances like this that it seems Mike Leigh's style of creating a film displays its flaws. A firmer script or tighter direction might have toned this down a little.

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.

The upper classes escape with only flesh wounds, it is the upwardly mobile former working classes that get the full mauling here thanks to stellar performances from Philip Jackson and most notably Heather Tobias. Martin and Val, morons with too much money and no taste (check out the clothes and the interior design!), high expectations for life and each other yet seemingly do nothing towards making them a reality, especially when it comes to communicating with each other.

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.

Additional Viewing:
            Life Is Sweet                    Billy Liar                      Trust                        The L-Shaped Room

Suggested Reading:
Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
A Kind Of Loving by Stan Barstow


  1. This looks great! I love Mike Leigh's work, but I haven't seen any of his pre-Naked films. Must remedy that soon.

    1. Incredibly the majority of his early output was made for the BBC after he made the beautifully depressing Bleak Moments in 1971. High Hopes, 17 years later, was his next cinematic release.

      Fuelled by how much I enjoyed rewatching High Hopes I went out and bought Mike Leigh at the BBC, an 11 movie boxset plus all kinds of delicious extras, so you'll probably find me dangling snippets of information and screenshots in front of you over the next year. Only as encouragement you understand, not to be mean.

      Athough from all your movie watching projects it looks like you could be busy for quite some time.

  2. I haven't seen any Leigh films unfortunately. Leap Year did peak my interest, along with your writing.

    He definitely seems like a filmmaker worth of recognition and attention.

  3. Oh Sam, I hope you meant Another Year and not the Amy Adams romcom Leap Year! I haven't actually seen it yet and I couldn't tell you why I am hesitating other than Happy-Go-Lucky was my least favourite of his movies.

    It was a large relatively indepth analytical post for me so I appreciate you taking the time to take a look.

  4. I have yet to see this one, so I skimmed my way through the post, but I am impressed by the presentation. Digging the fancy screen cap layout as well as the recommendation section at the end.

    1. Thanks BT, it actually took me so much longer than I anticipated so for you to praise them makes me feel like those hours worthwhile.

      I'm still working on the presentation of the recommendations section but I think it's here to stay.

  5. I"ve just watched Another Year (Ruth Sheen again) & I was feeling nostagic about High Hopes, my favorite of Leigh's, the sense of time and place he has brings back the era more than some of my blurred memories. It's a beautifully soulful film and easy to reccommend - while the politics might have dated the humanity of the piece remains relevant - good work on the page, cheers Simon

    1. Thanks for stopping by Simon. Couldn't agree more with your sentiments here although picking a favourite from Leigh's body of work is nigh on impossible for me.

      I really should watch Another Year. Why haven't I done that?

  6. High hopes and low life, lol Mike Leigh is one of my favourite directors. Check out our celebration and article dedicated to him.

  7. You have many good things to say but you frequently forget to end one sentence before beginning the next.
    "The performances from Leslie Manning and David Bamber are still strong, they are like a train wreck that you just can't turn your eyes away from, but it's with instances like this that it seems Mike Leigh's style of creating a film displays its flaws."

    Besides the run-on sentence, the second part of this is very clumsily written, making it difficult to understand what you mean.