Nov. 26th, 2014

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I'm not familiar with Mike Leigh's work. I have seen precisely two films directed by him, and both of those in the past year. The reason for this, I think, is that I tend to avoid the dour indie, 'hey look at these normal people be miserable OMG AREN'T THEY NORMAL' nebulous-notgenre label, and having had the sense that Leigh's films lay under said label, I had little interest in his catalogue. What this documentary makes clear however is just how inappropriate that label is for Leigh - and in fact, said label seems to be based on just one of his films (2001's All Or Nothing). But this is more than an issue of inventing trends that ignore the variety of Leigh's catalogue. The main mischaracterisation of Leigh that I've fallen prey to, is the idea that he makes films about 'normal people'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that Leigh does not make films about the kinds of people most films are about - ie. violent people, criminal people, insane people and clowns. But he also doesn't make films about people who are aimlessly 20-something. Mike Leigh makes films about fascinating people, only, 'fascinating' in this context is defined differently to how most films approach the concept. In the vast majority of films (and probably stories in other media) people are fascinating for what they have done. In Leigh films, people are fascinating because of how distinctive they are, and they are that distinctive because the entire process of making the film is designed to make them distinctive.

The thing everyone knows about Mike Leigh is that he improvises and doesn't have scripts (or at least, he doesn't have a script in the conventional sense). What this film clarifies is that Leigh doesn't just turn up, point a camera at an actor and start filming. The process is instead one of massive rehearsal, that first establishes exactly who the actor is playing down to the smallest detail, and then places that character into a number of different scenarios to discover how he/she plays in relation to other characters. In short Leigh's story-construction method is designed to totally prioritise character over every other narrative element.

The upshot, in my admittedly limited experience, is that Leigh's films are filled with characters possessed of a distinct psychology no matter their screentime, and are narratively driven by the intent to reveal the nuance of those psychologies through the characters' interactions. One part of the documentary that really captures this comes in the section on Meantime (1983), where Leigh remembers how the Far Left got mad at him for 'wasting the chance to really say something'. But the way a Leigh film is constructed, the idea that it might say something (in the sense that the film is a build up to a conclusion about a state of affairs) is infeasible, because that would require the characters be subordinate to the commentary and in a Mike Leigh film characters bow to nothing. Mike Leigh films build up to nothing, because their subjects are always onscreen, always being investigated. Knowing this, there is a scene in Mr Turner (2014) that I suddenly understand so much better.

So, Turner (Timothy Spall) has arrived at a mansion. There he encounters a Miss Coggins (Karina Fernandez) sitting at a piano, and asks her to play him a particular song. She agrees, and as she begins to play he starts to sing along, despite being a bad singer that does not know the words. It is however not funny. It's a little awkward, but mostly sad and also tender, one of those moments in the film when Spall lets the wall inside his eyes fall down, that here reveals a vast empathy for Miss Coggins that together with the song implies great loss. What that loss is, we do not know. Nor is the fact that we aren't told a mystery that is to be solved later on in the film. This scene is the sole time in which these characters interact. In another film, a film constructed around story-beats and headed towards a conclusion, that would make this scene wasted time: an indulgence by the writer or director, pleasant but unnecessary. But that is not this film, and thanks to the documentary, that is visible. Leigh's films are built on character, and are built to express character. So long as a scene does that (as this one does), it is complete: no information necessary.

PS. Oh and also - Eddie Marsan's anecdote about how, when preparing for his role in Happy Go Lucky, he was expecting to play a Travis Bickle-type character right up until he was confronted with Sally Hawkins' Poppy, is a perfect means with which to understand what that character is. Though to be honest, that's just one amazing anecdote of dozens. They definitely picked their interview subjects well.


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January 2016


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