Mike Leigh was born in the north of England in 1943. He was trained in the theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and in film at the London Film School. When he arrived in London in the early 1960s, he was excited by Cassavetes’ movies, and by Peter Brook’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Improvisation,” as he put it, “was around.” But he distanced himself from its psychodramatic excesses. Happenings didn’t interest him. Acting, writing, and directing did.
While he no longer acts, he has so far written and directed 24 theater plays, 12 TV plays, four movies, one radio play, and several short sequences for television. He describes himself as a storyteller. His stories are made up during many months of rehearsal. “There is nothing extraordinary about our technique,” Leigh claims. But in fact, there is. What is extraordinary is the combination of improvisation and discipline, spontaneity and precision. The notes for his published plays mention that they have “evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.” This is true of the movies as well. To make Naked, a story about a drifter in London who is so terrified of domesticity that he abuses every woman who falls for his manic charm, Leigh put his actors through four months of rehearsal before shooting a frame. There was no script to begin with.
Leigh’s actors literally have to find their characters, through improvisation and research into the ways people in specific communities speak and behave. The setting for Leigh’s stories can be Northern Ireland (Four Days in July), or a modern South London slum (Meantime), but wherever it is, Leigh and his cast immerse themselves in the local life before creating the story. Then, gradually, as Leigh works with each of his actors individually, speech patterns, facial expressions, body movements, and accents are developed until characters emerge, as it were, naturally. But still there are no lines. The rehearsal, Leigh says, “is to prepare ourselves, so we can make up the film.” Leigh starts with a rough idea for a story. Sometimes it is no more than a mood, or a sense of place. The first shooting script for Naked contains no lines and no instruction, just a bare outline: “Scene One. London. Day. Johnny and Sophie.” And so on. Each scene is then rehearsed on location, while Leigh writes the script. By the time he is ready to shoot, everything has to be precise.
There is no more improvisation in front of the camera. “To get everything right for that one moment on film, that’s what interests me. You want the spontaneity of the theater to happen at that white-hot moment when thecamera is rolling.” These decisive moments in Leigh’s work are theatrical, often hilarious, and yet absolutely believable. There is usually a climactic scene in every story, a horrible family row, a chaotic explosion of repressed emotion, sometimes relieved by an instance of tenderness. These scenes are theater, but with the dangerous edge of reality. In Naked, Johnny, played brilliantly by David Thewlis, needs sex, but is terrified of domesticity. Homelessness, far from being his problem, is Johnny’s chosen path to self-destruction. He wants women to love him, but backs off when they do. He is a disturbing character to watch, especially in the current state of gender politics, because he is a charming misogynist. Which is not to say that the film is misogynistic. As in other Leigh movies—Life Is Sweet, for example—the strongest, most sympathetic character is a woman. Compared to the others, Johhny’s ex-girlfriend Louise is a rock of stability who is trying to throw him a lifeline. Leigh’s dark vision of London’s wet, neon-streaked streets, where young drifters huddle around fires under Victorian railway arches, or holler madly in the night, gives Naked the air of a French film noir. The movie looks different from anything he has done before. But Naked is not as much of a new departure for Leigh as some critics have suggested. For Johnny is trapped in the same dilemma that runs through all of Leigh’s work: Hell is the others, but the others are also our only salvation. The lifelines of family and marriage are potential prisons too. Louise almost manages to turn Johnny around from being a manic destroyer of himself and the others attracted to him. There is a scene of great tenderness after Johnny has been beaten up in the streets by thugs. Louise washes his wounds, and they revive their former intimacy. Together they sing an old song from their native Manchester a typical Leigh touch. And at last Johnny looks at peace with himself. But not for long.
We are not supposed to admire Johnny. He is too perverse, too destructive for that. But we can recognize, nonetheless, that Johnny’s predicament is a basic human problem, for which Leigh sees no solution. He just stares at it, picks at it, ponders it, and shows it in every film and play he has done. Family lives, particularly relations between husbands and wives, are almost always disastrous in Leigh’s work. Yet some of the strongest scenes in his films are of reconciliation. Mike Leigh is often described as a satirist of English manners. And to some extent he is. He is a master of the nuances of British class divisions: a particular kind of wallpaper, a pair of spectacles, a turn of phrase, can be enough to place a character in terms of class, regions, and upbringing. Again, it is Leigh’s precision that is striking. Art direction and stage design (usually by Alison Chitty) are of vital importance. Leigh himself, a slight, stooped figure whose bulging eyes appear to be popping out of his skull, like those of a child staring at the grown-ups, not wanting to miss a thing, is perfectly placed to be a chronicler of the British scene. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household in a working class district of Manchester, where his father practiced medicine. Leigh’s father was known as the “whistling doctor” since he was always whistling as he went on his rounds. Leigh went to a local state school and he would watch his father’s National Health Service patients, coming to the house to be treated. To be surrounded by people who are familiar, yet different, is to grow up with watchful eyes. Leigh’s way of looking at people, with their heightened oddities, is rather like the way children observe their teachers at school. Every quirk is mercilessly noted. Leigh often displays a kind of horrified delight in the tawdriest aspects of English life: tiger-skin patterned wallpaper, dolls of Spanish dancers on bedside tables, male hands groping large bottoms wrapped in pink chiffon.
Leigh’s England, populated by grasping used car dealers, nosy social workers, randy postmen, frustrated housewives, office clerks, and croupiers, could not be further removed from the thatched cottage or country-house image of England promoted in New Yorker ads or Merchant Ivory films. Leigh’s loving reconstruction of seediness remind some of Diane Arbus’s photographs. Like Arbus he has been accused of patronizing his subjects. This is because, like Arbus and her admirers, Leigh and his audience are, on the whole, not of the same class as the people portrayed. And there is, of course, a certain voyeuristic pleasure to be got from Leigh’s work. But unlike many of Arbus’ subjects, Leigh’s characters are not freaks. For the world he has created, with some but not very much exaggeration, is entirely normal. Much of England really is like that. And because he is so unsentimental in his depiction of the working class, or the striving lower-middle class, his characters are rarely caricatures. Leigh’s method of improvisation has much to do with this. For if his actors and actresses simply acted out the tics and mannerisms of class stereotypes, Leigh’s work would be no more than social satire. Satire is after all the art of caricature. What makes Leigh’s work so much more than that is the way his actors develop their characters. The mannerisms, the accents, the walks, form just one layer of the complex personalities built up over time. It is as though Leigh’s method speeds up the natural formation of personality: the process of a lifetime compressed into the space of months. This does not always work, especially with minor characters. There may not always be time enough. Some of the weaker performances in Leigh’s films—the yuppie couple in High Hopes, for example—look unfinished, for they are stuck in their mannerisms; their characters remain unformed. Usually, however, Leigh’s characters come splendidly alive.
Besides Leigh’s uncanny ability with characters, Leigh’s work shares another concern, namely communication, or rather the inability to communicate. Characters persist in getting married, and having families, even though the chances are that it will all end in misery. But there is one thing sadder than connecting badly with other people, and that is not connecting at all. Leigh’s first feature film, Bleak Moments, made in 1971, offers an interesting parallel to Naked. Both films are about failing to connect. In Naked the sex is loveless and brutal; in Bleak Moments the sex is suppressed. Both films show how people use language without being able to communicate feeling, except in song (hence, perhaps, the British fondness for community singing). And this—conversation as a form of evasion—is still the key to Leigh’s work. Once could say that it is the key to English manners too. It is hard to get on a London bus or listen to the people at the next table in a cafeteria without thinking of Mike Leigh. Like other wholly original artists, he has staked out his own territory. Leigh’s London is as distinctive as Fellini’s Rome or Ozu’s Tokyo. These are of course products of the imagination, cities reinvented for the movies. Mike Leigh’s England is a personal as well as a local product. And yet it is universal too. For Johnny and Louise, and the many others, are not just Leigh’s people, not even just British people; by creating them, Leigh has shown us a glimpse of ourselves.