From all of Mike Leigh's mighty oeuvre of Work, I think this remains my favorite. Features youthful performances from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.
Many writers about film have a mistaken notion of art. They think it presents experiences packed with tight, compressed meaningfulness, just sitting there waiting to be unpacked by the diligent critic. In the standard critical demonstrations, the greatness of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or 2001 is that virtually every lighting effect, camera angle, or prop is freighted with interlocking significance. Criticism is the act of translating those stylistic details into an intricate series of significations. The critic exhumes the sermons the artist has artfully hidden under his stones. In this view, both creation and interpretation are acts of mastery–Faustian enterprises in which the artist operates from a position of ultimate knowingness that the critic and viewer aspire to equal.
Of course, there are films that are organized this way and yield to this kind of critical scrutiny–Hitchcock's work leaps to mind as an extended example, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a game-playing, puzzle-solving notion of art, that could probably only have come to the fore in a field as immature as film study. If we look at truly great works of art we find something quite different. They are more likely to be humble and tentative than displays of intellectual power and knowledge. They are more likely to be acts of exploration than presentations of compressed, prepackaged meaningfulness. Encountering them is more likely to feel like living through an unusually complex and demanding experience than like learning something.
To watch Uncle Vanya is not to move through a world of hidden meanings waiting to be decoded but to be exposed to psychological uncertainties and emotional complexities that it is impossible to get to the bottom of. To stand in front of Rembrandt's portraits is always to be at least somewhat in the dark, uncertain about what you are seeing and what it means. His figures just slightly elude understanding--his own as well as ours. They won't snap into focus morally, psychologically, or semantically, not just the first time, but the hundredth time we look into their elusive eyes. To navigate Shakespeare's suspended, sliding clauses with their multivalent, unresolved metaphoric associations is not to be put in a position to excavate meanings hidden just under the surface, but to undergo a series of experiences too shifting and slippery to be pinned down as "meanings" or "knowledge." What is normally denoted by words like knowledge, meaning, and significance--something clear, definite, static, atemporal, and abstract--is the very opposite of these artistic experiences.
Meantime shows what it feels like for a film to be a genuine act of exploration for its creator, its actors, and its viewers. It is clear that Leigh and his actors went into the film not quite knowing where they would come out. The film takes the viewer on the same voyage of discovery that they took in the process of making it. The difference in the way it was made is why the characters and scenes don't offer a set of static, abstract meanings to be decoded, but a sequence of flowing, shifting events to be lived through.
Its general subject is the relationship of two families headed by sisters. As Leigh often does, he organizes the film around a series of contrasts based on class and temperament. The premise is that the sisters' personalities are as different as possible and they have married into entirely different social and financial milieus at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Barbara is childless, financially and socially successful, lives with her businessman husband in a nice house in a suburban neighborhood, has a refined voice and mannerisms, a cool demeanor, and a fairly intellectual temperament. Mavis is irascible, blunt, outspoken, somewhat inarticulate, loud, coarse, and poor, and lives in public housing with a layabout husband and two twenty-something sons (who are themselves set up to be opposites: Mark is clever, sharp-tongued, and devious; Colin is quiet, meeker and mentally slower). While the one couple is polite, deferential, and subdued in its interactions, the other family bickers and squabbles more or less continuously. The general situation was clearly chosen to allow for the possibility of a number of dramatic comparisons and contrasts dear to Leigh's heart (the "refined" and "coarse" sisters, the "bright" and "dull" brothers, and the manners and modes of expression of the upper-middle and lower-class family members in general).
But beyond outlining a dramatic situation with many potential contrasts, clashes, and differences in points of view, it is clear that Leigh began, not with a set of points to be made, but a series of questions to be explored. For the one family, how might you act, talk, and feel if you were unemployed and on the dole? For the other, how might you act, talk, and feel if you were highly successful? For the socially and financially flourishing family, how might you interact with the less successful relatives? For the other family, how might you treat relatives who are much better off? How might financial marginality affect a father's relationship with his wife and grown sons, particularly given the coarseness of all involved? How might you act if you were in your early twenties and had nothing to look forward to in the way of financial improvement of your situation? What is it like to be a skinhead, a punk, a drifter? The questions are really endless for an actor or director, since new ones keep coming up as you go through a scene encounter by encounter and beat by beat. (If you were the father on the dole, would you let your son mouth off to you like that? What might you say in reply? What would your tone of voice or gestures be? How might the son respond? What would be your response to that?)
What makes the experience challenging for a viewer is that Leigh doesn't confine the question asking to himself and his cast. He wants the viewer to become an explorer also. Most films make points and provide insights, not require viewers to move through situations without them. While other films simplify characters' personalities and interactions to facilitate understanding, Leigh's scenes and characters resist thumbnail glosses and delay judgments by presenting sensorily "thick" and cognitively "unanalyzed" experiences. Experiences don't come with handles to pick them up (in the form of a lighting effect, a musical orchestration, or a narrative puzzle to be solved). And their meaning keeps changing; the viewer is forced to keep revising his interpretations of events and characters, adjusting his understanding in the light of each new development. Instead of rushing to conclusions, the viewer must simply stay open. Knowing must give way to wondering and surmising.
If we ask which character's perspective is the "correct" or "best" one, which is "right," or who we are supposed to "believe" or "identify with," we get nowhere. That would be to assume that Leigh endorses the sort of superpersonal, absolute truth that exists in most mainstream films. In Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or Psycho, it is possible to attain a final, cumulative, "correct" view that subsumes and includes the partial views of the individual characters. There is an absolute, impersonal truth to be arrived at, and in fact arriving at it might be said to be the purpose of the narrative for the viewer. (The main character almost always finally attains that "ideal" view in most works–in Hitchcock's films, for example). But, even when no character attains it (as is the case in Citizen Kane) the viewer does. As the ending of Kane grandiloquently illustrates, no matter how fragmented the temporal presentation and how halting the progress, the ultimate possibility of a general, comprehensive understanding is never really in question. Though the moral of Kane is sometimes said to be the opposite, it is clear that it tells us that there is a truth beyond individual biases.
Leigh simply doesn't believe in truth in general. In his work, there is no getting beyond truth's perspectival nature. In Emily Dickinson's term, all truth is "slant;" none is straight. The individual views of Mark, Barbara, Colin, and Haley do not cumulate in a general, comprehensive overview, any more than those of Peter, Norman, Sylvia, and Hilda do because a general, impersonal understanding is an impossibility.
Barbara's understanding of what she is doing, Mark is doing, and Colin is doing is fundamentally different from Mark's or Colin's understanding of it and her. All three perspectives are equally right–and equally limited. All three are equally correct–and equally biased and partial. Each person has his own truth, based on who he is, what he has lived through, and what he brings to the particular moment. The film itself is the closest we can get to an understanding of the whole truth–an understanding that is irreducibly perspectival.
Even considering his characters individually, Leigh won't filter their personalities and interactions to purify their effect and function. Everyone's motives, goals, intentions are mixed and impure. American movies tend to see their characters in terms of moral and emotional absolutes: This one is good and that one bad; this one an idealist, that one a cynic; this one a hero, that one a villain. In Leigh, no one is simply right or wrong–no one is simply anything. Everyone is many different, contradictory things.
In Bleak Moments, Sylvia is funny and loving (and deserves love and affection), but she is also intimidating to men, unpredictable, perverse, and self-defeating; Peter is a prig, but a sincere, well-meaning one. In The Kiss of Death, Trevor is refreshingly free and spontaneous, but also self-centered, irresponsible, and immature. In Meantime, Barbara is kind but also deeply flawed; Mark is cynical, negative, and cruel, but can also be thoughtful, intelligent, and right about some things; Colin is trusting and innocent, but also flawed in some respects. We want black and white, but Leigh gives us gray. We want a hero to cheer for and identify with, and a villain to dislike; but Leigh gives us prickly, strange, mixed (and mixed-up) figures.
Leigh won't "cheat" to make a point. He won't exaggerate the characters' qualities to make things easier on the viewer. Turn on almost any American film and you'll find a main character you can admire, a "good" figure (who is able to be so good because his problems are outside himself), whose consciousness the viewer can flatteringly "become." No character is that simple or pure in Leigh's work. Heroism is imperfect (which is why the concept doesn't really apply). Virtue is flawed. Good intentions are expressed in troubling or mixed-up ways. Wendy, in Life Is Sweet, is as good a character as Leigh ever creates, but she is also a bit of a nag and a ditz. American film viewers feel frustrated by this state of affairs. Everyone seems stupid or inadequate in some way. Is Leigh mocking all of his characters? Is he cynical or despairing? Surely, we are not meant to "admire" Mark, Colin, Barbara? And the answer is no, we are not. But the imperfection of these figures is not a flaw or miscalculation on Leigh's part. Nor an expression of cynicism. It is his deeply humane appreciation of his characters' humanity. It represents his understanding that, in Lenny Bruce's phrase, truth is not what should be, but what is. In fact, if anyone deserves to be accused of despair or cynicism, it is the Hollywood filmmakers who feel that they have to idealize characters to make them valuable. Leigh respects and honors figures who are like the ones we meet in life–who are like us, with flaws, shortcomings, and every other kind of compromise. For Leigh, reality doesn't have to be prettified or simplified to merit our interest; what is, is good enough....
–Excerpted from Ray Carney, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).