Nobody stands up for Britons in the lower class trenches like the fierce, opinionated and outright brilliant Mike Leigh; his unusual writing and directing method yields terrific results in his first feature made for TV. And the early performances of Tim Roth, Phil Daniels and Gary Oldman should be the stuff of acting legend, ’80s style.
The Criterion Collection 890
1984 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 107 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date August 15, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Marion Bailey, Phil Daniels, Tim Roth, Pam Ferris, Jeff Robert, Alfred Molina, Gary Oldman, Tilly Vosburgh, Eileen Davies, Peter Wight.
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Film Editor: Lesley Walker
Original Music: Andrew Dickson
Produced by Graham Benson
Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh is something of an acquired taste, but I have to say that I haven’t forgotten anything of his that I’ve seen. There are of course his ‘special’ period recreations of Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, and his marvelous Happy-Go-Lucky. It is already nine years old but I feel as if I saw it yesterday. The writer-director’s main line of pictures is something quite different, a refinement of kitchen-sink realism and a near- documentary refusal to resort to narrative norms. Leigh’s pictures about the dispossessed and socially stagnant are less ‘written’ than conceived in an actor-director workshop environment. Normal viewers complain that nothing happens, which is off the mark because Leigh’s stories of grim apartment blocks and chronic unemployment focus on the real events and choices in his characters’ lives. I got off to a bad start with Leigh’s Naked because I had difficulty relating to the main character. I recommend that newcomers begin with 1990’s Life is Sweet or this new Criterion release, Meantime. A main reason to give it a look is seeing some amazing actors in early appearances — Phil Daniels, Tim Roth, Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman are the ones best known.
Meantime is Leigh’s first feature, although it was made for Brit TV and filmed on 16mm. It’s reason for being has a strong historical bent — Leigh wanted to show the economic and social blight brought on by Thatcher’s Britain, which reversed the socialist trends begun after WW2. As explained in Sean O’Sullivan’s essay, Thatcher said that she simply didn’t believe there was such a thing as ‘society,’ that the government had a responsibility for its poor.
The way Meantime is put together one might think it an actors’ movie. Rather than write a script, Leigh gathered his players together in a workshop setting and hammered out the characters with them, individually and in groups. Starting with the given of a decrepit apartment block where dwell the under-employed, Leigh allowed character to determine what happens. Much of the film is simply seeing the appalling way that people with no hope relate to each other. Life is spent in the humiliating situation of being on the public dole. Without pride, personalities fester. The women are neurotic and the men are neurotic and hostile as well. The young people are in a trap of being unable to pursue aspirations or make plans. Shame is expressed through a loss of patience and civility.
Men of one family are first seen on the unemployment line. Father Frank (Jeff Robert) is so dulled by his predicament that he spends his days in a sullen stupor. Oldest son Mark (Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia) has a sharp mind but is so warped by his situation that he interacts with his family and others almost completely in insults and negative, cruel remarks. Mark’s younger brother Colin (Tim Roth) is not mentally impaired, but slow on the uptake. His reactions are such that people assume he’s dim-witted. He’s grown up crushed by the poor treatment of everyone including his family. Mark in particular uses Colin as an emotional punching bag. Frank’s wife Mavis (Pam Ferris of Children of Men) has become harsh and unforgiving of all of them. She gets little or no help around the house. Accomplishing the simplest group action, just sitting down to a meal, only brings on acrimonious talk, cruel barbs and dull insults. The only thing they seem to do is watch TV.
When Mark gets out, trouble can start. The dole money is spent drinking and playing pool. The local boys dress as punks and relieve the boredom by frightening people with hostile behavior. Coxy (Gary Oldman) is a dangerous mass of troublemaking energy, whose puts faux-friendly act masks the rage beneath. The boys often see neighbor Hayley (Tilly Vosburgh) at the pub or the coin laundry. She behaves like a mouse but still can’t avoid occasional taunts. She’s lonely too, but when she invites Colin and Coxy into her mother’s apartment, Coxy decides to terrorize her. He starts by putting his Doc Martens up on the furniture, and is soon crowding and teasing Hayley until she’s ready to leap from a balcony.
Mavis’s family finds a common resentment with her sister Barbara (Marion Bailey), who has managed a more upscale yet still modest boost in class and lifestyle by marrying John (Alfred Molina), a fairly stuffy young bank employee. They own a car and a single-family house. When the family visits Barbara and John try to be civil, but Frank mostly sits and stares, Mark engages in verbal insults and Colin stands around being uncomfortable. Even this much of a class divide is a source of bitter resentment. Mavis is overly sensitive to what Barbara says as well, while most of what her men say is hostile and hateful.
The well-meaning Barbara is naturally more cheerful, which makes her a special target. She wants to re-decorate a room in her house, and hires Colin to help. Her object is to give Colin something to do, to earn some money, stay busy and hopefully have a positive experience doing something. The reactions from the family are appalling. Frank accuses Barbara of taking advantage of Colin. Mark is plain jealous, even though his barbed comments claim the opposite. Even Mavis’ reaction is a disappointment: she decides that she will claim half of whatever Colin earns.
Colin shows that he has a mind of his own by ignoring the rancor and going through with the pact. He has a difficult time figuring out the busses to Barbara’s but eventually arrives. But Mark has arrived ahead of time, with the express purpose of intimidating Colin and screwing things up. It’s a case of the miserable Mark being unable to stand the thought of anybody else doing anything constructive. Barbara is positive but not very insightful; she doesn’t detect Mark’s perverse purpose, nor see how the forces of intimidation have crushed poor Colin’s personality. He moves forward to his own little act of rebellion.
The whole setup of Meantime would be intolerable if it were not for a feeling we get that something positive will break. We know that Mark is smart — will he develop the will to do something useful, or give his brother a fair shake? We’re ready for most anything to happen. The title suggests the idea of ‘meanwhile,’ that while big things are happening in London, a huge chunk of Brit life is wilting, going sour for lack of hope. If jobs were available to give people some pride in themselves, a girl like Hayley might have both Mark and Coxy competing for her favor. As it is, she’s lucky that they’re all bravado, and little real menace. The psychic damage we see helps explain everything negative about dysfunctional modern society — where children are born into the same cyclical social rot.
Even though this is his first feature, Mike Leigh shapes the material well and isn’t intimidated by shooting in 16mm. His camera angles do much more than follow the improvisations. We get a strong feel for the entire setup, from the shabby flat with its tiny rooms to the public courtyard strewn with trash. A powerful sidebar story follows an unmarried black couple. Mark and Coxy express their hostility by taunting him in the elevator, calling him a ‘black bastard.’ The guy’s shy girlfriend has become pregnant, and they haven’t told her mother. She is no more realistic about things than anybody else. When her boyfriend brings her a baby buggy, she turns it down because it’s not new. Pathetic circumstances like this are the norm: these people have got nothing, and they’re so and spiteful that they will purposely ruin anything good that does come along.
Mike Leigh’s actors appear to have become the characters they portray. The result is that we see precious little acting going on, just behaviors that seem entirely real. Gary Oldman has maybe ten minutes on screen but makes the movie his own — Coxy is your regulation proto-thug, with bad teeth and skin and a worse attitude. One striking image, of Coxy playing in a large metal bucket just as a five-year-old might, perfectly expresses his terrible frustration.
As the central character Phil Daniels wears facial hair that prevents this viewer from connecting him with his Mod go-getter of Quadrophenia or his young quartermaster’s aide in Zulu Dawn — Mark’s frustration makes him a practically unreadable malcontent. Tim Roth’s Colin is like nothing we’ve seen from him later — withdrawn from own harsh surroundings, desiring only to be left alone, Colin sits and stews, breathing through his mouth and staring without focus. Only Mark can really understand his brother’s problem, but will he make the effort to befriend him?
Most of the outsiders we see want nothing to do with our central family, from the harried allotment check woman at the unemployment center (Eileen Davies) to the neighbors that give the young men a wide berth. When the family needs help with a broken window, the ‘estate manager’ (Peter Wight) in charge of the crumbling apartment block turns out to be a total freak on the public payroll. Acting strangely, he seems more interested in spiritual matters than getting anything done. The family has no choice but to put up with whatever he does. When Frank asks when workers will come, the estate manager evades the question and hangs around as if waiting to be asked to dinner. He squats in a corner to scribble in a pad, while recommending that all take his path to enlightenment by abandoning chairs. The residents are powerless and he knows it; his attitude is annoyingly passive-aggressive.
Pam Ferris and Marion Bailey are theater actors closely associated with Mike Leigh’s movies; most of the main actors have appeared in more than one of his movies. Some reviews I’ve read treat Ms. Bailey’s Barbara as a villain, a viewpoint I don’t understand. Barbara doesn’t flaunt her relative success and sincerely wants to help Colin. It’s not her fault if she can’t recognize the dysfunctional mechanisms at work. Even when they seem hopeless cases, Leigh’s characters are somehow likable and worthy enough to merit our concern. Things aren’t ugly for their own sake but because this is the kind of malignant personal dynamics that result from social stagnation. Mike Leigh’s ability to dramatize a larger social malady is unique.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Meantime is a beautiful 1:66 transfer, so attractive that most shots look good enough to be 35mm. It is a tiny bit grainy but the color doesn’t suffer either — the rooms look tawdry but don’t dissolve into gray mush. One might expect a film like this to employ only source music, but Leigh works in an interesting score by Andrew Dickson, which takes some of the sting out of the depressing situations. Dickson went on to score six of Mike Leigh’s pictures.
Disc producer Kate Elmore’s added value extras bring the package to extra life. Tim Roth speaks candidly of his experience with Mike Leigh in an interview from ten years ago, but for new material Elmore pairs filmmakers in ‘conversations.’ Musician Jarvis Crocker and director Leigh speak at length on the show, and actress Marion Bailey reacts to questions by critic Amy Raphael. Sean O’Sullivan provides a foldout liner note essay that focuses on some of Leigh’s structural choices, such as breaking up the close-quarters dramatics with a lengthy shot of Phil Daniels walking across Trafalgar square.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: New conversation featurettes: director Mike Leigh and musician Jarvis Cocker; actor Marion Bailey and critic Amy Raphael; 2007 interview with actor Tim Roth. Insert foldout with an essay by film scholar Sean O’Sullivan.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 8, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson