I first met Mike Leigh 10 years ago, during his breakthrough retrospective at the 1986 San Francisco International Film Festival. It was at a dinner that promised a coming-together of opposites -- Leigh, contemporary Britain's reigning movie poet of the commonplace (though at that point, with one exception, he'd made films only for TV), and the late Michael Powell (The Thief of Bagdad, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), who was riding the crest of his rediscovery as the U.K.'s master of fable and spectacle in the '40s. Since Leigh is devoid of social airs and Powell reveled in being a worldly wit and dandy, some mutual wariness was expected. But they clicked, partly because they both were full of curiosity and appetite, and partly because they recognized each other as movie men with an instinct and gusto for the medium.
Of course, Leigh's celebrants sometimes find it difficult to communicate how works of precise social observation, intimately detailed acting, and bone-deep empathy -- whether big-screen originals like High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, or made-for-TV masterpieces like Grown-Ups and Meantime -- are both scrupulous human documents and viscerally engulfing movies. Yet a long track-in and close-up of a pre-Alzheimer's woman enduring a birthday party in High Hopes has more expressive impact than any of those virtuoso traveling shots that start at the tip of a continent and end in a crowded room (cf. the first shot of this year's The Birdcage). When I interviewed Leigh for High Hopes in 1988 (the first feature he'd made in 17 years), he was, as usual, guarded about his fabled dramatic process -- the way he builds up characters and structures through intense improvisation and real-life research with his actors. (For most of his career his preferred credit was not "Written and directed by Mike Leigh" but "Devised and directed by Mike Leigh.") What delighted him was the chance to talk about camera choices like that prolonged track into a close-up of that befuddled old woman: "At first I thought, 'Well, she's going to sit there saying nothing, and, in external terms, doing nothing.' But in real life, would I keep looking at her to see what she was feeling or would I run the risk of overlooking that? I decided to track in very slowly to her, because in the end, everything happens through her."
Leigh's cachet has grown in the years since High Hopes: 1990's Life Is Sweet deservedly received the best picture award from America's National Society of Film Critics, and for his scabrous 1993 Naked (an apocalyptic work that divided even his admirers) he was judged that year's best director at Cannes -- where his latest, Secrets & Lies, a mixed bag of the highest order, won this year's Golden Palm. (It's the opening-night presentation of the New York and Mill Valley film festivals.) A low-slung, bearded man with a sneaky paunch, a free-swinging intelligence, and a doleful wit, Leigh told me during a return trip to San Francisco to promote Secrets & Lies that he can't judge the extent of the Mike Leigh groundswell from his "worm's-eye view" -- "I think it's a basic horticultural principle: Water it long enough and it grows." The newly successful Leigh is no different from the man who recalls being "at the end of my tether" at the time of his S.F. retrospective, when he hadn't launched a feature in a decade and a half.
When speaking about the dregs of contemporary film, no one is more savage than Leigh; but when describing great movies or performers that he loves, no one is more ebullient. Bring up Kind Hearts and Coronets, the ancestor of Leigh and Jim Broadbent's short film A Sense of History, and he'll react as freshly as if he'd just seen it: "It's good, isn't it? That director, Robert Hamer: He's gooood." His own movies emerge from a ground-hugging sensibility that's in turn antic, serious, and lyric. He's often talked about how growing up as the son of a doctor in a grimy industrial neighborhood of North Salford, Lancashire, familiarized him equally with middle-class and working-class views of the world. But his depictions of everyday life go beyond class sensitivities and local customs. He's the prime example in contemporary moviemaking of finding the universal through the particular. The premise of Secrets & Lies is that a working-class white woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) discovers that a daughter she gave up for adoption is a black optometrist named Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who wants to re-enter her life. But like High Hopes and Life Is Sweet the movie is also about parent-child relationships as seen from either side. And while exploring not just Cynthia, but her childless photographer-brother, Maurice (Timothy Spall), and sister-in-law, Monica (Phyllis Logan), Leigh gets at something mysterious -- people's ability to miss what they don't have. I had qualms about the movie's neat wrap-up, and the Therapy Speak that intrudes on its climax. But Leigh has always risked banality in his quest for the sublime in the quotidian. Few films of the '90s have moved me as much as Life Is Sweet, yet when I picked up the published script and read the words that the mother told her alienated, anorexic daughter, they left me cold; it was only when I spoke the lines that I found myself choking up. "I just want you to be happy, that's all," the mother tells the daughter, "and you're not. I wouldn't care what bloomin' job you did, I wouldn't care 'ow scruffy you looked, as long as you were happy. But you're not." In performance, that final "But you're not" carries a transcendent sadness, care, wisdom, and conviction. Secrets & Lies is replete with Mike Leigh moments, and this time in conversation, while polishing off a plate of chicken and later some chardonnay sorbet, Leigh was clearer than ever before about how he gets them.
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