Mike Leigh may well be Britain's greatest living film director; his worldview has permeated our national consciousness. This book gives detailed readings of the nine feature films he has made for the cinema, as well as an overview of his work for television. Written with the co-operation of Leigh himself, it challenges the critical privileging of realism in histories of British cinema, placing the emphasis instead on the importance of comedy and humour: of jokes and their functions; of laughter as a survival mechanism; and of characterisations and situations that disrupt our preconceptions of ‘realism’. Striving for the all-important quality of truth in everything he does, Leigh has consistently shown how ordinary lives are too complex to fit snugly into the conventions of narrative art. From the bittersweet observation of Life is Sweet or Secrets and Lies, to the blistering satire of Naked and the manifest compassion of Vera Drake, he has demonstrated a matchless ability to perceive life's funny side as well as its tragedies.
‘Out of the kindness of her heart’: Vera Drake 11 Leigh’s second cinematic venture into period drama was in a sense closer to home than Topsy-Turvy, being set within living memory for a substantial proportion of a 2004 audience; and dealing with a subject about which it is virtually impossible to remain neutral. In its way, it was clearly as personal a project as the earlier ﬁlm, too: its dedication reads, ‘In loving memory of my parents, a doctor and a midwife’. The setting is London in 1950, when the Second World War still resonated in people’s memories, and
Conclusion ‘The journey continues’ This book leaves Leigh on something like the crest of a wave. The success of Vera Drake was almost immediately followed up by a triumphant return to the theatre, a medium in which he had not worked since 1993’s It’s a Great Big Shame! Still, even after an absence of twelve years, it is hard to imagine him refusing an invitation from the Royal National Theatre – although it had taken him a few years to ﬁnd the time, Nicholas Hytner having asked him every year since taking over as the National’s artistic director in 2001. Hytner
Introduction: ‘You’ve gotta laugh’ Mike Leigh may well be Britain’s greatest living director. Without question, he has carved a unique niche for himself: describe a person or a situation as being like someone or something ‘out of a Mike Leigh ﬁlm’, and few would fail to understand what you meant (which would probably be a small-scale domestic drama involving trapped, yet highly idiosyncratic, suburban characters). And yet, when his most recent ﬁlm Vera Drake was released in 2005, thirty-four years after his debut feature, Peter Bradshaw was able to claim in a
continuing misconception that they are: all the improvisation occurs in the preparation and rehearsal. (There are, of course, occasional onset amendments and suggestions, but no more than in the shooting of most other ﬁlms.) What he does do is enhance the authenticity of the performances by giving the actors no more information than their characters know: Alison Steadman, for example, was not aware that her character’s daughter suﬀered from bulimia until she saw a preview of Life Is Sweet; and in Vera Drake, nobody but Imelda Staunton knew in advance that her character was
relationship, as it was in Grown-Ups and will be for couples in Leigh’s future ﬁlms from Life Is Sweet to Vera Drake. Ray Carney’s extended analysis of their joking and sense of play comprehensively demonstrates how Cyril and Shirley’s laughter is a sign of their humanity, their sense of self and their ability to engage with the world around them. Their behaviour is healthily, spontaneously responsive – the antithesis of the inelasticity which Bergson deﬁnes as inappropriate and therefore ridiculous. In that sense, their characterisation as a couple can be seen as a