In a filmmaking career spanning five decades—encompassing numerous television films (often made for the BBC), and a string of theatrically released features—the British writer-director Mike Leigh has developed a formidable and stylistically unique body of work that is chiefly preoccupied with exploring the foibles of human nature. Save for a handful of period forays—including Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014), and Peterloo (2018)—his films are typically set in contemporary Britain, and revolve around the lives of resolutely unspectacular people grappling with the often grim yet sometimes humorous vagaries of everyday existence in a nation known for its rigid, though seldom openly articulated, class structure.
Leigh’s films tend to proceed at a languid pace, and in his constellation of finely drawn characters you won’t find superheroes or superstars but a motley bunch consisting of depressed taxi drivers, passive-aggressive housewives, delusional would-be restaurateurs, perky schoolteachers, disaffected drifters, and families who simply cannot get along. Spectacular dramatic flash points are kept to a minimum, and Leigh has a way of spinning electricity from mundanity. In the 1982 TV film Home Sweet Home, Leigh conveys how thoroughly a marriage has collapsed through the aggressive way a wife takes a knife and fork to her spaghetti hoops on toast at the kitchen table opposite her gormless husband. (In one memorable summation, critic Clive James approvingly described the film as the “gripping story of three postmen and how practically nothing happened to them.”) The most exciting thing that transpires in Meantime (1984), Leigh’s lacerating Thatcher-era study of the effects of unemployment on a working-class East London family, is the breaking down of a washing machine—somehow, thanks to the intricate, keenly observed network of character interactions that Leigh has built around this moment, it has you on the edge of your seat. In Another Year (2010), Leigh produces crackling tension simply from the quiet juxtaposition of a happy, ever-so-slightly smug middle-aged couple with their wayward, alcohol-dependent single friend.
Time: Time in the Mind
Unlike any other prison documentary before it, Garrett Bradley’s masterwork poetically evokes the subjective experience of a family whose lives have been fractured by incarceration.
The Celebration: How Long Can This Go On?
A searing melodrama that lays bare the trauma wrought by white supremacy and privilege, Thomas Vinterberg’s second feature kick-started the Dogme 95 movement.
Menace II Society: The Truth Hurts
With the candor and rage of many hip-hop albums of the nineties, the Hughes brothers’ controversial debut feature depicts Watts as a pitiless urban war zone with no exit.
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