One of my favorite critical observations, one I go back to almost as frequently, if not more frequently, than Roberto Rossellini's pronouncement on late Chaplin, comes from the writer David Ilic, who remarked that the recordings by the British improvisational group AMM were "as alike and unalike as trees." As it happens, Ilic himself appears to have lifted that simile from Glen Sweeney, a founding member of the Third Ear Band (scorers of, among other films, Polanski's infamous MacBeth), who used the phrase to describe his outfit's output. There's a discussion of trees—cypresses, to be precise—in Abbas Kiarostami's new Certified Copy that goes into the implications of that simile in some depth, but...oh, my, where were we?
Ah, yes. As alike and unalike as trees. One could say the same about the films of British director Mike Leigh, and at this late stage of his career it seems that the alikeness is beginning to wear on certain critics. I'm not one of them, and I would (gently) counsel those who take him for granted that they ought not. Because nobody makes films that feel and play the way his do, for better or for worse, and after he's gone, it's doubtful that anybody else is going to. His deep-dish method of creation—involving intensive preparation with his actors and a huge amount of controlled and oft turned-over improvisation—has been much discussed in various venues; but as Leigh himself pointed out in the post-press-screening Q&A for the film the other day (during which various journalists donned all manner of metaphorical "kick me" signs which Leigh did not follow, but did acknowledge the existence of, let's say), it's the finished, polished product that finally counts. I found this particular product thoroughly engrossing, personally galvanizing, and a little problematic all at once. A thoroughly successful Leigh film, in other words, going by a certain yardstick.
The structure of the story is as simple and as obvious as life and/or death; it's right there in the title. Starting in the spring, it chronicles a year in the lives of thoroughly civilized old London couple Tom and Jerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), Jerri's troubled, over-drinking 50-something work colleague Mary (Leslie Manville), the couple's single, solid, slightly dull son Joe (Oliver Maltman), and a few others, most notably Tom's Hull-based pal Ken (Peter Wight), another hard drinker, if you will, and Tom's very quiet older brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Tom and Jerri are cheery, comfortable old lefties who've understood that they're not in a position to change the world anymore, and have gotten to be fine with that (there are times when I could see this film as an update on Leigh's 1988 High Hopes, in which a younger [obviously], punkier, leather-jacketed Sheen played one half of a more agitated couple). Mary's life, on the other hand, is one turmoil after another, and the couple's dealings with this frantic white-wine drunk eventually get one to wondering whether these nice settled folks are really all that nice. Because Mary is very clearly an alcoholic; not only is the A-word never once dropped in the film, Jerri, who's a therapist herself, never even suggests counseling or a support group to Mary until a hammer-dropping scene near the film's end. Then there's Ken, with his gigantic belly and his two cans of lager on the train up to London and his whinging monologues on how his local's now filling up with snotty awful young people. Physically, Wight comes off rather like conservative pundit Bill Bennett, but to tell you the God's honest truth, his character rather reminded me...of me, not much more than a year ago. (Awkward!) He's a mess, in any event, and Tom tries to tell him so...sort of. The couple are so damn polite, so damn indulgent, and all the while they're stifling their own feelings of put-upon-ness and resentment to the point that you understand they're passive-aggressively enabling Mary. It's a rather remarkable portrait of abnormal psych in the postmodern world. And it brims with little uncomfortably accurate touches. A more careless or inexperienced filmmaker would have brought the two drunks together for a romantic folly maybe, but Mary is vividly repelled by Ken in that exact way in which certain heterosexual drunks are with turned off by each other—call it "I may be a mess but I'm not that mess" syndrome. It is all rather terribly sad.
Lesley Manville's performance as Mary was recently described as a "hate-it-or-love-it turn" by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times; a friend with whom I saw the picture bristled a bit at the film's portrait entire of Mary, calling it cruel. I'm still taking that aspect of the film in, frankly; I was certainly incredibly impressed by the virtuosity of Manville's acting, particularly what she does with her face. Mary has a rather unhealthy romantic fixation on Tom and Jerri's son Joe, and when she ineptly flirts with him, she looks almost as coquettish as she wants to come off. When disappointment or rage hits, as it inevitably does, her face deflates, the lines on it seem to increase, she looks practically corpse-like. Like a corpse that's about to spit, to be exact. There is also sometimes a sense that Mary's drunken on-ness is a bit too vivid, approaching caricature-level; but for all I can tell at this moment, to perceive the performance that way may be some form of...denial? In any event, her work here makes me uncomfortable. As it is damn well meant to, I think.