I vividly remember being chilled to the bone by Naked, which earned Mike Leigh best director and David Thewlis best actor at Cannes, then thrilled by Secrets and Lies, which won the Palme d'Or and earned Brenda Blethyn best actress at Cannes. It explains why I spent ten times longer than I had to settling on the top three Mike Leigh truisms.
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Mike Leigh's work is part of a fine tradition of British realist cinema
Mike Leigh says his style has its roots in Dickens. In contemporary cinema terms, though, he's often lumped in the same social realist camp as Terence Davies and Ken Loach. He agrees his films fit that convention but also calls them tragicomedies: “The influence of comedy, vaudeville, pantomime and circus are just as important to me as the hard, social way of looking at the world.” When I read that comment here. I thought about the way that Mary in Another Year becomes more eccentric and expressive the more she drank and about how the camera captures Tom and Gerri's behind-her-back looks. Indeed, the restraint of the camera puts the focus on the characters – as though they are on stage or in a circus ring. Leigh's films are also humanist because he does not judge his characters.
The films are slice of life in style, but also very close-to-the-bone
No-one ever questions the authenticity of Mike Leigh's characters or scenarios and they often prompt debate. This UK article, referencing Another Year and about the depiction of single women in cinema – and the more than 70 comments – is a good example.
Another Year is an exploration of people of his generation. He says here that it is about “looking back with either joy or regret, looking forward with warmth and optimism or into a black hole of terrifying horror”. He says the notion that women have to be sexy and gorgeous has stitched Mary up for life. Lesley Manville's performance as Mary, he adds, “enables you to see the woman she [Mary] is at the same time as the young woman she once was and who she's desperately trying to hang on to, and also the old woman that she's terrified of becoming”.
Leigh's films are not just social realist but also about everyday lives, which means the scenarios don't always provide big dramatic moments. It makes some cinemagoers quick to dismiss them as not being entertaining.
Mike Leigh uses improvisation and regularly works with the same actors
Actors love working with Leigh because they get to develop characters and story alongside him. This can take half a year and he writes as he goes. An enlightening description of the process is here. The director repeatedly uses actors so much that his Wikipedia entry includes a chart with films across the top and actors down the side. Lesley Manville gets eight crosses, although in this video Leigh says he's worked with her nine times.
Leigh wants his actors to be able to think deeply about their characters and be able to respond organically and emotionally when required he says here.
The film he has been working on this year, about the artist JMW Turner, stars regular collaborator Timothy Spall. It will be interesting to see the outcome given biopics aren't his usual style.
Another Year screens this Saturday on SBS One at 9.30pm.