Thursday, November 11

Pulling Rabbits: On Mike Leigh

I'm pretty sure Mike Leigh doesn't actually exist. There were probably just some British actors who decided that no-one gives them any decent roles, so they just made a movie themselves.

Those last two sentences are lies, of course. Mike Leigh does actually exist, and he has made some pretty damn good films. But there is a grain of truth in that last bit. You see, when most people want to make a movie, they write (or find) a screenplay and then film it. Some people follow theirs religiously (Hitchcock once quipped: When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, “It’s in the script.” If he says, “But what’s my motivation?”, I say, “Your salary”) while other directors allow their actors a degree of improvisation. But what Mike Leigh does is something quite different.

Oh you sneaky fuck, you

First he creates a basic premise and a rough story line. Then he gets a bunch of actors together. He tells them who their characters are, and then lets them just live those peoples' lives for a few weeks. Not the fancy life that they will lead once the story starts rolling, just their everyday life. The best dialogue that come out of these sessions gets written down, and are later used in the film. And while filming, he often keeps the plot twists from the actors so he can register the genuine surprise on their faces.

You can imagine how this is pretty much the best preparation you could wish for as an actor. So it should come as no surprise that his movies always feature nothing but stunning acting from every single person involved. He has people playing in what ought to be award-winning performances in secondary roles, just because his main characters are so fantastic. Just watch David Thewlis (who deserves to be remembered for more then just playing Lupin in Harry Potter) acting his ass off in Naked, and you'll see what I mean.

I know I have used this image before. I don't care.

The major advantage of this is that Leigh doesn't have to flee behind flashy action to make interesting movies. He fully utilizes his fleshed-out characters to make small, human-focussed drama in the best sense of the word. Vera Drake, for instance, is about a woman in her fifties who illegally preforms abortions. And although it is impossible to doubt her good intentions (Vera is one of the sweetest, most selfless people in any movie ever), what she is doing is still illegal and, more importantly, doesn't always end right. When the police knock down her door after one of her "helpings" goes drastically wrong and the whole things comes crashing down (to the complete surprise of her entire family, who didn't knew about all this) we are faced by that classical dilemma: should one be judged by his intentions or by his actions? That is human drama in it's purest form.

Although a lot of filmmakers try to bring this to the screen, a surprising amount of them fail. Either they have to retort to interesting set pieces (which isn't necessarily bad) or they make a boring movie (which is in my opinion one of the worst things you can do). But Leigh mastered the tricks of the trade long ago, and he doesn't show any sign of stopping either. It's sort of uncanny actually. You know, I am sure about the whole "existence" thing, but I just realized I haven't screened him for secret mutant powers yet. More on this later.


Shiver me timbers, the dude is British! Wasn't there this one band from Britain that was pretty decent?

Oh yeah.

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