Union Mike

Kate Bush on Mike Leigh at the National Film Theater


Left: Mike Leigh. Right: Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake. (Photos: Universal Pictures, Fine Line Features)

Lancashire's greatest auteur took to the stage to meet the public after a screening of his latest, the almost universally praised Vera Drake. His Q-and-A session at the National Film Theatre was ably set in motion by the British Film Institute's Sandra Hebron, who had selected the movie to open her acclaimed London Film Festival last October. In print, Mike Leigh can come across as a grumpy old man, verging, in his invectives against the Hollywoodization of cinema (a disease, in his view), on the sanctimonious. In person—and before an audience of informed and adoring cinephiles—he is determined yet thoughtful, responsive, jocular, and unquestionably inspiring, though more in the manner of your favorite school teacher than your favorite rock band. “Who IS Vera Drake?” someone shouted from the back. “Where ARE you?” he barked in return, unable to see his interlocutor, before proceeding to speculate on whether Vera Drake, as he had discovered on another public occasion, was coincidentally the name of the questioner's mother.

As the film’s title character, Imelda Staunton is fantastic. With her tiny, kind eyes buried like raisins in a bun, she's endlessly scuttling around with cups of tea, as comforting as Mrs. Tiggywinkle. And her body shrinks, quite literally, into a hedgehoglike ball as a postwar world of austere good cheer shatters around her. For Vera not only offers aid, comfort, and a cuppa to all who need it, but also—unbeknownst to her nearest and dearest—helps girls who find themselves unhappily in the “family way.” Where Naked (1993) was a character study in badness, Vera Drake is a study of goodness. Does the film tell us, someone asked, that “it is inevitable that do-gooders suffer?” Definitely not, responded Leigh. The film isn't a statement but a dramatization of a painful truth: When individual and society hold conflicting moral positions, it's the individual who is likely to lose. Vera Drake is about “a good person criminalized by society.”

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of Leigh as the great satirist of life in Thatcher's Britain. He encapsulated the beginning of the era unforgettably in Abigail's Party (1977), with his ex-wife Alison Steadman as the excruciating Beverly, the materialistic spouse of a suburban real-estate agent. And he chronicled its demise in Life Is Sweet (1990), a film that laments the human cost of '80s enterprise culture. Because he makes cinema that refers to real life and the issues and themes that articulate individual lives, Leigh is often described, in the same breath as Ken Loach, as a “kitchen sink” realist. But it is a misleading comparison: Where Loach's political agenda is clear, Leigh's is intentionally ambiguous; he's a poser of questions rather than a prophet of fact. Leigh's films have never been realist in the sense of “naturalistic” or “documentary.” Their characters and their stories are distilled and dramatically heightened during a monthslong preproduction process of research and rehearsals that has given rise to the common misconception that Leigh’s films are “improvised.” The director described his own role in this process in practical, almost managerial terms, as the leader of a team of actors, designers, and cinematographers who “work together to expand the material, discovering the film through the process of making it.”

Leigh also is frequently attacked for reducing his characters to caricatures of class, and while it is certainly true that anyone upper-middle or beyond tends to be sketched rather than drawn, the charge is irrelevant if you view him not as a social realist but as a “painter” of modern life. His ensemble pieces like Life Is Sweet or Secrets and Lies (1996) remind me most of those bustling Victorian genre paintings, by Francis Frith or Ford Maddox Brown, in which society is represented on a huge canvas populated by closely observed, sharply individuated types, the dramatic details of whose lives are used to figure a moral or social issue. Like those nineteenth-century paintings, Leigh's creations are conscientiously and laboriously crafted. By the time the actors’ fully realized dramatic world is committed to film, it is utterly convincing to the audience. This is why, when Vera Drake starts crying about an hour into the film and continues almost nonstop until its end, you find yourself weeping unavoidably with her. As an observer of everyday life and a dramaturg of intense moral complexities, Mike Leigh may fall short of the effortless brilliance of a Satyajit Ray or a Yasujiro Ozu, or, then again, the radical brilliance of a Lars von Trier. But here in Britain, he's one of a kind.