Mike Leigh has a certain amount in common with the late American filmmaker John Cassavetes. Both work from their characters out, eschewing the fanciful plotting and dramatic structures of conventional Hollywood-style films, for more deeply rooted and natural mise en scene. Where they diverge is in the kinds of characters they gravitate towards. For Cassavetes, his New Yorkers were grinding, larger-than-life art house icons half-crazed and nakedly emotional, for Leigh, it’s the very realistic, everyday struggles and upheavals of middle class Londoners. The results may be similar, but where Cassavetes leaned more towards pretentious stylistics, sturm und drung monologues and emotional pyrotechnics, Leigh is content to let his camera fix on the tired, beaten down, and needy faces of his characters, telling his stories through their own limited understanding of what makes them tick.
In his new film, he follows an older married couple through four seasons. Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist with the city of London, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counselor at a local hospital, are the happiest of couples. They share their lives generously with each other, gardening in a small plot a short drive from their home, cooking each other wonderful meals, greatly enjoying their own company, even as they anxiously await their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a public defender, to find a relationship of his own. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear the film is much less about Tom and Geri, than about the other, far less fortunate people in their constellation. Primarily, there’s Mary (Lesley Manville) a sad-sack friend of Gerri’s from work, divorced, neurotic and very much alone, scanning a mostly vacant horizon line to find someone — anyone — who would be willing to be with her. But not even she can stomach Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight) a heavy-set boozer, whose own palpable loneliness is too much for anyone to take.
Clearly, Tom and Gerri provide a happy example for some of their more deeply afflicted friends to suffer through. As always, Leigh has teased out remarkable performances from his cast — if not almost too exasperatingly real in Mary’s case. But unlike some of his earlier work, such as the otherwise sublime Secrets & Lies, he doesn’t feel the need to produce a firm narrative arc. He’s content to leave the many loose ends of his desperate characters to blow in the wind. As far as marriage metaphors go, you could do a lot worse than careful tending of a garden, but the contrast is so vivid and striking (don’t Tom and Gerri have any friends as relaxed and easy going as they?), Leigh oversells his thesis by a mark or two. There’s still plenty to enjoy and appreciate in the film, but you can’t quite escape the feeling that he’s stacked the deck a bit too much in his protagonists’ favor.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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