Why Kate McCurdy adores… MIKE LEIGH

10 Dec

Welcome back to WHY I ADORE…!!! Yes, we’re doing our very best to bring you another object of cinematic/televisual adoration every single week! So pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass and enjoy the show…

This week’s adorer is KATE MCCURDY, marketing manager for independent film distribution firm SHARMILL FILMS, who have been providing Australian cinemas with personalised distribution of connoisseur films for over four decades (you can follow them on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sharmillfilms). Kate hasn’t been there nearly that long, but her fine taste in films serves her well both there and here, as she pays due tribute today to an auteur who counts as both cinematic AND televisual, a man who, in a deceptively sparse filmography (only 11 features in 40 years, but over 20 television movies and specials during that time) has helped to singlehandedly define a very British style of social realist filmmaking…


Mike Leigh is my favourite filmmaker of all time. He is one of Britain’s — if not the world’s — greatest living filmmakers, and a genius in the true sense of the word. Often unjustly labelled misogynist, miserabilist, cruel, depressing and patronising, to me, these words couldn’t be further from the truth. I am not here to defend him to his harsh critics – of whom there are many – because his extraordinary continuing body of work does this perfectly well. While trying to avoid labels myself, I adore Mike Leigh because his characters and films are based on a foundation of unerring desire to explore the human condition and why people behave the way they do. Leigh does this with an open-minded curiosity, frequently with understanding and affection, and always without judgement.

I first saw SECRETS AND LIES around the time it was released on VHS; I was about 12. I remember being struck by the power of the telephone scene between Cynthia and Hortense, particularly how Brenda Blethyn was able to convey Cynthia’s confusion and horror in this life-changing moment for both of them. The scene that follows some time later at their first meeting in the diner, with Hortense and Cynthia side by side, a take that lasts for over 9 minutes, is one of the most incredible scenes of emotion captured on film:

Cynthia: But sweetheart, I can’t be your mother, can I?
Hortense: Why not?
Cynthia: Well… look at me!

Frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall gives one of the greatest performances of his career in SECRETS AND LIES, (including the now iconic line which has been given The Simpsons treatment!) and his portrayal of Maurice is so warm and comforting, as he strives to hide the pain of having to hold his fractured family together.
One of my favourite aspects of the film is the montage of the huge cast of characters as they pose in Maurice’s professional photography studio. If you look closely almost all of these people, featured for only seconds at a time, have appeared or will appear in Leigh’s films. I especially love seeing one of Britain’s great comic actors and Leigh’s former partner, Alison Steadman as she fervently combs the fur of her dog to hide its flea collar, the legendary Liz Smith looking radiant as she poses with her cat, and Ruth Sheen who can’t stop giggling! Also keep an eye out for Peter Wight and Phil Davis who have appeared in five and six of Leigh’s films respectively.

In 2005, I wrote my honours thesis on Leigh’s films entitled ‘Familiar Interiors’, which was intended to be a play on words as the action in Leigh’s films often takes place in kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms, and that the films are always about families. Even in films such as NAKED and CAREER GIRLS, which have themes of emancipation, the characters still have strong feelings about families and how their personalities have been shaped by their parents. In addition to these strong familial themes, the ensemble casts that Leigh brings together for each film have also become a family of their own over the years. It is incredible to see how many actors will come back and work with him time and time again, reinventing themselves as the roles require. Indeed, Lesley Manville is Leigh’s most frequent collaborator with seven films under their collective belt (including 2011 release ANOTHER YEAR), and I am always floored by her ability to transform herself with each new role.

The themes of the familiar and familial runs even deeper than this. I have a real sense of feeling ‘at home’ when I watch one of his films. These are real people, albeit presented in a heightened realism, but I know them. This is an intrinsic part of the way Leigh works. I won’t go into the whole complex and fascinating Leigh filmmaking method here, suffice to say that he asks the actors to base their characters on people they know. One character may be based on many different people, possibly someone the actor is friends with, met briefly years before, or even spied on a bus. A character such as Katrin Cartlidge’s magnificent creation of Hannah (“it’s pronounced Hannaah actually”) in CAREER GIRLS is a glorious example of a mishmash of idiosyncrasies, from talking through her right hand when she’s nervous to her brilliant witticisms veiling her vulnerability. This film is a wonderful example of different aspects of human behaviour coming together to create characters, particularly as Hannah and her friend Annie are shown at two important stages in their lives: university students and then thirty-somethings, still trying to work out who they are. These two (almost four) characters have been pieced together from a multitude of observations of others, as well the actors’ own memories and experiences. In turn, these are characters and circumstances that I can relate to strongly, particularly the student lifestyle and also recommencing a friendship after a long time apart. The first scenes in Hannah’s apartment where the awkward silences are punctuated with small talk are uncomfortable to watch, as they are so painfully familiar.

I have a very close relationship with my little sister (22 months between us) and the explorations of sibling relationships in Mike Leigh’s films are particularly interesting to me, especially those in MEANTIME, between brothers Mark (Phil Daniels) and Colin (Tim Roth), and twin sisters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) in LIFE IS SWEET. The last critical scenes between both pairs are some of the most moving and beautiful I have seen on screen, as well as being uplifting and hopeful despite the circumstances. In both cases, Leigh shows without sentimentality that families who love and care for each other, particularly siblings, can achieve a solidarity with which they can take on the world.

Leigh took an interesting turn after LIFE IS SWEET, giving David Thewlis the greatest gift a director can give an actor, by casting him as Johnny in NAKED.

The first time I watched NAKED, I was alone at night and I was not prepared for the onslaught of the opening scene, let alone what was to follow. Johnny is an enigma, and as such, I have a different experience every time I see this film. The scene with Johnny and the night security guard (Peter Wight) is always longer than I remember, because it covers so much ground so quickly, as they debate the existence of God and the possibility of past and future lives. It is frenetic and powerful as we witness the shattering of dreams. Exhausting to watch, yet, at the same time, it is mesmerising and extraordinarily funny (see the ‘Maggie!’ scene). Thewlis developed his own theories for Johnny based on meticulous reading of texts such as Nietzsche, Nostradamus and the Bible and was able to recite all of Johnny’s grand theories from memory. The power of this film to me is akin to standing next to a subwoofer with the bass reverberating through your body.

NAKED is one of my top ten films of all time and, at the same time as presenting a bleak post-Thatcher London, it is just as funny and poignant as Leigh’s other films such as HIGH HOPES and HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. It is also, for me,’ easier’ to watch than Leigh’s first two films, BLEAK MOMENTS and HARD LABOUR, the latter being the one I have the most difficulty with. Liz Smith in HARD LABOUR plays one of the saddest characters I have ever seen on screen and, despite the abysmal ways that her character is treated by her family (particularly her husband) and her employers, when she confesses to her insensitive priest that she ‘doesn’t love people enough’, it is heart-wrenching. Unlike most of his films, this is not a film about hope but simply getting on with things, as it ends with Smith’s character performing the never-ending act of housework.

BLEAK MOMENTS does live up to its title in some places, but is also at times hilariously funny during the severely drawn-out awkward silences of people who can’t bring themselves to say what they feel. Anne Raitt gives a haunting performance as Sylvia, in Mike Leigh’s first feature film described by Roger Ebert as ‘a masterpiece, plain and simple’.

There are simply too many films to go into a blog entry, and I do feel as if I need to give all of the films equal space to do them justice. Indeed, just like his film, I feel like I should be taking an ALL OR NOTHING approach! I really wanted to convey how much I adore Mike Leigh’s characters and the real worlds in which they live. I feel as if I could bump into them down the street, and often do in a sense, as the characters are always kaleidoscopes of real people. The integrity and humanity of Leigh’s characters cannot be underestimated and reveal more and more with each viewing. Probably the most common behavioural trend that recurs in his films – and most likely a reflection of the man himself – is that the more likeable characters use humour to get by, while the unlikeable and tragic characters do not, or are unable to, laugh at themselves. Humour is the strongest aspect of Leigh’s work. There can be no tragedy without humour, and being able to laugh in spite of it all is a true measure of resilience.

Mike Leigh is one-of-a-kind and I can only hope that he will continue making films I adore for a long time to come.

– Kate McCurdy


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2 Responses to “Why Kate McCurdy adores… MIKE LEIGH”

  1. joel December 11, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    great addition to a great blog. well done guys!

  2. Perri December 15, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks Katee, you’ve inspired me to watch Secrets and Lies again. I agree, I think you should do a Why I Adore on each of the movies!

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