High Hopes

January 28, 2011

Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, High Hopes

At the beginning of the new English film High Hopes, a young man, Wayne, climbs out of the London underground and stands around, looking like a goof. Lost, he will search for his sister, fail to find her, and then toddle back to his rural home, never to be heard from again.

Wayne’s search takes up the first 15 minutes of High Hopes, but he is simply a vehicle for entry into the story. The people who befriend him turn out to be the characters that we will spend the most time with, but Wayne’s curious presence is typical of the movie’s ability to accommodate tangents, yet seem like an utterly organic whole.

The subject matter of the film is simply life in London today, and the way some people cope. The people include a couple, Cyril and Shirley (Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen) whose former radicalism has settled into a kind of permanent crankiness; Cyril’s aged mother (Edna Doré),who is beginning to show the effects of senility; her crazed, repulsive upwardly-mobile neighbors (riotous caricatures by David Bamber and Lesley Manville); and Cyril’s awful sister (Heather Tobias), a woman with a laugh like some horrible dying animal, who gives her mother a home blood-pressure kit for her birthday.

These lives intersect with regularity but without any kind of obvious structure, and the events veer from kitchen-sink reality to satirical comedy. The scenes between Cyril and Shirley, two homely, intelligent people, have an intimacy that convinces you that the camera is somehow peeking into real lives, not movie lives. This is invisible acting.

It’s an unpredictable film, always alive. The writer-director is Mike Leigh, an Englishman who has worked extensively in British theater and television. Leigh visited the area recently for interviews, and he described his working method. He begins a project with a theme or a setting, then hires actors to develop the story and their characters with him.

Thus the actors have “total creative freedom in every way,” Leigh says. “We’re on a voyage and we don’t actually know where we’re going. I can always changes horses in midstream.” Leigh and his actors go through lengthy periods of research and rehearsal, although there is little actual improvisation once shooting begins.

Leigh says High Hopes was born out of his thoughts on “political disorientation,” the urge to procreate (Cyril and Shirley are weighing the political and social implications of having a child), and Leigh’s own experiences with a dying father and the difficult lot of elderly people in London whose neighborhoods are rapidly changing.

Critics who have seen Leigh’s theater and TV work suggest that High Hopes is more upbeat than his usual. “To say it’s an optimistic film is to simplify it,” he says. But, he insists, “I would be depressed if anyone thought it was entirely satire.” Then he seems to put his finger on his philosophy in general: “If you show life the way it is, you are implicitly lamenting it.” High Hopes is a graceful lament.

First published in the Herald, 1989

This is the only time I have interviewed Mike Leigh, and the memories are not fond. It was one of those things where I said something dumb at the start, or began with just exactly the wrong sort of question you’d want to lead with if you wanted to communicate to this filmmaker that you weren’t really just another media idiot being herded into the room to fulfill a certain number of column inches, no, you actually were kind of cool and seriously into this whole film thing. No, that certainly was not communicated, and I could see something in the back of Mike Leigh’s brain switch off as he sized me up, and he was finished with me at the beginning of the talk, and it was all sort of grouchy and automatic for the remaining time. (Plus, I was 30 years old and looked about 14.) Still, that last quote from him is pretty nice. Leigh’s Another Year opens in Seattle this week, and it does have a few affinities with High Hopes, including cast members Sheen, Manville, and Davis.