[The Mike Leigh Feature Film Collection is an eleven-disc box set, but the only disc available for review was the bonus disc. Reviews of the individual films linked to below are of other releases, and audiovisual specs and extras may not be as presented in this box set. Running times are for DVD, with PAL speedup.]
Mike Leigh is very much a “London” filmmaker, as he lives there and almost all of his films have been set there. So it may come as a surprise to find that he was actually born in Salford (in 1943) and only moved to the capital to study at RADA. But that should be no surprise either: often outsiders make the best observers, picking up details and minutiae that might pass unnoticed to a native. He was born to middle-class parents (his father was a doctor) but grew up in a working-class area of greater Manchester, and the bulk of his work depends on observation of the aspirant working classes and their lower-middle class equivalents. At times Leigh can be a merciless spiker of snobberies and self-delusions, to the extent that he has been accused of patronising and caricaturing his characters. There are occasions where that might be justified, but more often it’s not. At other times his characters are viewed with considerable sympathy and humanity. And it says something that people in other countries can identify with characters and situations that are so culturally specific. It would be fair to say that Leigh is often valued more overseas, especially in France, than he is in his native country.
Leigh trained as an actor, and few writer-directors give so much space to their casts. A breakthrough was watching a 1964 TV documentary on the making of Peter Brook’s legendary stage production of Peter Weiss’s play The Marat/Sade. There, the actors playing asylum inmates improvised their roles after spending time with real mental patients. If that could be done, Leigh thought, would it be possible to originate an entire play (or film) from improvisations with his actors? And so Leigh’s distinctive working method was born.
Early Leigh productions had no writing credit: later it was “devised and directed by”. Actors sign on to a Leigh project without knowing its title, or even much of its plot. In workshops with Leigh they develop their character, without meeting any of the rest of the cast that his or her character would not meet. They also know only as much plot information as their character does. In Vera Drake, the actors playing Vera’s family did not know that Vera (Imelda Staunton) had a secret sideline as an abortionist…until the moment when the police arrived to arrest her during dinner. From this, Leigh goes away and writes the script, which is locked when the time comes to shoot the film itself.
Leigh’s first productions were for the stage, but he always yearned to make films. After some shorts, his debut was Bleak Moments (106 minutes, Cert PG) in 1971. Mostly financed by the actor Albert Finney and produced for the BFI Production Board, Leigh’s film is a study of the thwarted lives of some South Londoners: Sylvia (Anne Raitt) who looks after her mentally disabled sister Hilda (Sarah Stephenson) and who has a tentative relationship with Peter (Eric Allan). Bleak Moments was a critical success at the time. Not without humour or sensitivity, it does overdo the bleakness somewhat and is hampered by its low budget. (Soda Pictures have released Bleak Moments simultaneously with this box set and my review is here.)
As did the slightly older Stephen Frears (who also made one feature in the early Seventies) and Ken Loach (who had made three by this point), Leigh found the British Film Industry uncongenial for the kind of films he wanted to make. (Apart from James Bond, Confessions-style soft porn and low-budget horror, there was very little filmmaking activity in the country then.) Salvation came in the form of the BBC, and all three directors spent the next decade and a half making their films for the small screen, usually shot in 16mm rather than video. Leigh’s output consists of six feature-length films for the Play for Today slot (Hard Labour , Nuts in May , The Kiss of Death and Abigail’s Party [both 1977], Who’s Who  and Home Sweet Home , one more for BBC2 Playhouse (Grown-Ups from 1980) and his last work for the BBC, Four Days in July (1985). In addition to these, he also made the short films The Permissive Society (1975) and Knock for Knock (1976) for the Second City Firsts slot and the compilation of five Five Minute Films (1975). (Knock for Knock is missing from the archives.) In the UK, the only Leigh films on DVD are Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May. The rights to the rest are presumably owned by 2 Entertain, who one hopes will release them sooner or later. However, the eight feature-length films, plus Bleak Moments, are available from Water Bearer Films, either singly or as three three-disc sets.
Working for the BBC gave Leigh a lot of freedom, as once a budget was approved he was left to make his films the way he liked. However, there were downsides: although he reached a larger audience than he would have done via an arthouse cinema release, many of these films were shown once and never repeated. (To be fair, the BBC did honour Leigh with a retrospective in 1983, which marked my first viewing for three of the titles above.) There were also restrictions on realistic language on TV, which the BBC did not begin to relax until 1980. But Leigh had ambitions to reach a larger audience via the cinema screen. By the mid 1980s, Channel 4 had arrived and was investing money in new British feature films. Meantime (102 minutes, Cert 15), was made as a Film on Four, though it did have some festival exposure. Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year reign as Prime Minister acted as a stimulus to left-leaning filmmakers like Leigh and his near-comtemporaries Frears and Loach, and Meantime was his response to the atmosphere of the times. Slow to start, but gradually taking hold, Meantime is the story of an East End family, particularly the unemployed son Colin (Tim Roth) who falls under the influence of skinhead Coxy (Gary Oldman).
High Hopes (107 minutes, Cert 15) was Leigh’s first feature for the cinema in seventeen years. It is the story of Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen). Cyril’s elderly mother (Edna Doré) is the last remaining council tenant in a rapidly gentrifying street. All Leigh’s virtues are present – note, for example, the way he uses production design as a commentary on his characters – and Cyril and Shirley are one of the most engaging screen couples for many a year. The yuppie couple, Cyril’s Mum’s neighbours (Lesley Manville and Philip Bamber) verge on caricature, though Manville has said that the real-life examples they found during their research were far more extreme. It is true that Leigh extends far less sympathy to them than he does to his other characters – and he is just as unsparing towards Cyril’s Thatcherite sister and brother-in-law.
At the time, Life is Sweet (99 minutes, Cert 15), seemed very impressive. It still is, but in retrospect it seems a dry run for much greater achievements later. Again, a family is at the centre. Chef Andy (Jim Broadbent), who dreams about setting up his own business, his wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) and their twin daughters Nicola (Claire Skinner), a trainee plumber, and Natalie (Jane Horrocks), unemployed, self-loathing and secretly bulimic. Life is Sweet is a very funny film that culminates in a heart-rending encounter between Wendy and Natalie.
Naked (126 minutes, Cert 18) came as a shock to many people. A comedy of a decidedly black variety, it’s the story of Johnny (David Thewlis), a highly articulate man, not so much misogynistic as misanthropic, on the run from Manchester to London. Dominated by a virtuoso performance from Thewlis, Naked is a powerful, disturbing piece. It was a key step towards Leigh’s masterpiece, Secrets & Lies (136 minutes, Cert 15). A black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), adopted at birth, tracks down her birth mother…who turns out to be Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white unmarried mother who lives with another daughter and whose brother Maurice (Timothy Spall) is a social-climbing photographer. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and both lead actresses, Secrets & Lies is a seamless blend of comedy and tragedy, culminating in a sequence where several secrets come to light.
In Secrets & Lies, Leigh takes his themes, style and subject matter about as far as they can stretch, so many wondered what he would do next. Career Girls (83 minutes, Cert 15) is a pleasant but minor effort. Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman play two University friends who meet up for a day ten years later. After a rather mannered start, the film does have its rewards, but it’s not Leigh’s best. He’s marking time between Secrets & Lies and another substantial effort.
Topsy-Turvy (154 minutes, Cert 12) is the last film many suspected Leigh would make: a biographical drama about Gilbert and Sullivan (played by Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner) and the making of The Mikado. It’s a surprising departure but one that works, despite some overlength: Leigh’s methods adapt well to the historical setting and displays considerable insight into its subject. The film dramatises a tension towards Sullivan’s desire to innovate and move away from crowd-pleasing, and Gilbert’s intense wish, almost a fear, of straying from the path of proven success, a conflict which may have occurred to Leigh as well. A scene late on in the film between Gilbert and his wife (Lesley Manville) is one of the finest scenes Leigh has ever directed.
All or Nothing (123 minutes, Cert 18) came as a disappointment to many. Leigh is back on familiar ground here, with a dysfunctional family (led by Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville) making ends meet on a London council estate. The film is not without its rewards but it shows Leigh treading water. I won’t go so far as to call it Leigh’s most underrated film - Career Girls and Life is Sweet have more of a claim to that title, to my mind – but it’s been overlooked. A higher than normal certificate (due to the BBFC’s new policy on the aggressive use of the word “cunt”) may have hurt it a little.
Vera Drake (120 minutes, Cert 12) is another historical piece. We’re in 1950s London. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a respectable wife and mother…and a secret abortionist at a time when abortion was illegal. It ends tragically, as you might expect. Leigh can be didactic at times, and he certainly is here, but the film is also very moving. Imelda Staunton’s lead performance is heart-breaking.
The Mike Leigh Feature Film Collection comprises eleven DVDs encoded for Region 2 only. Naked and Bleak Moments make their UK DVD debuts with this set, the latter simultaneously with the Soda edition.
The following are the specifications of the individual discs:
Bleak Moments - 1.33:1 Non-anamorphic. Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Spirit have licensed Soda's transfer: the film even begins with their logo. The transfer is 4:3, but as I say in my review of the Soda release, I have my doubts about that. Unlike the Soda disc, Spirit haven't brought over Leigh's commentary track and their disc is Region 2 only instead of Region 0. No extras at all in fact, nor any subtitles.
Meantime - 1.33:1 Non-anamorphic. Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, English HOH subtitles
Licensed from ITV DVD, this 16mm-originated feature is definitely is in the right ratio. However, as you'd expect, by contrast with the other film, mostly shot in 35mm, the transfer does look a little soft. Mono sound again, and subtitles provided this time. The extras are interviews with Leigh (19:21), Tim Roth (31:45) and Marion Bailey (9:25), which, given the running times, are pretty substantial.
High Hopes - 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, English HOH subtitles
Licensed from Fabulous Films and identical to their edition reviewed here. Extras: original poster, stills gallery, production notes, biographies, Leigh interview and on-set news footage.
Life is Sweet 1.78:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Surround, English HOH subtitles
The earlier edition that I reviewed here was in a ratio of 1.66:1 and non-anamorphic, so it's good to report that this disc is a great improvemen, and closer to the correct ratio (which would have been either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1 in cinemas).
Naked - 1.75:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Surround, English HOH subtitles
New to this set and to UK DVD release, this features a commentary by Leigh, David Thewlis and the late Katrin Cartlidge, presumably licensed from the Criterion release.
Secrets & Lies - 1.78:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Surround, English HOH Subtitles
A windowboxed transfer. The major extra on this disc is Leigh's 1992 short A Sense of History (25:11). This film is unique in that it is the only work for film or TV for which Leigh was just the director, working from someone else's script. The writer was Jim Broadbent, who delivers this monologue as the twenty-third Earl of Leete. It's blackly witty if a little over-extended. Leigh and Broadbent are just deadpan enough to carry if off. The film is presented in 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Other extras specific to Secrets & Lies are a Leigh interview (4:57) and the trailer (1:53).
Career Girls - 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Surround, English HOH subtitles
The only extra on this disc is Leigh's other short film for the cinema, The Short & Curlies (17:11). Made for Channel 4 in 1987, it gave its name to the channel's season of shorts. A four-hander, it marked Leigh's return to shooting in 35mm since Bleak Moments. However, this transfer isn't what it should be: non-anamorphic 1.66:1 and seemingly mastered from a video source.
Topsy-Turvy - 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1, English HOH subtitles
Licensed from Pathé, the non-anamorphic transfer is certainly unfortunate, but that said still a good one. The extras are a Leigh commentary and the trailer (2:07).
All or Nothing - 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5,1, English HOH subtitles
Licensed from StudioCanal, and a very good transfer. The extras are another Leigh commentary, the trailer (1:55), and interviews with actors Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Helen Coker, James Corden, Alison Garland, Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, plus Leigh, production designer Eve Stewart and producer Simon Channing-Williams.
Vera Drake - 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1, English HOH subtitles
The disc, licensed from Momentum, begins with an anti-piracy advert, plus trailer for The Door in the Floor. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead and an advert for the UK Film Council. The film was shot on Super 16mm, so the transfer is softer and grainier than some of the others in this set, notwithstanding the deliberate brownish hues that DP Dick Pope and designer Eve Stewart go for. The extras are a making-of documentary (11:22) and the trailer (2:04).
The bonus disc contains three items. First off is the newly-produced Mike Leigh in Conversation (70:31). With each film in the set, Leigh talks to a key cast member. The exception is Career Girls, presumably because Katrin Cartlidge is dead and Lynda Steadman was presumably unavailable: here Leigh simply talks to camera. This is a relaxed, friendly piece which gives us a lot of insight into Leigh’s working methods, and along the way he does answer some of the usual charges laid at his door. With Lesley Manville, he discusses the alleged class caricaturing in High Hopes, and with Lesley Sharp he discusses the accusations of misogyny concerning Naked.
In 2002, at the time of making All or Nothing, Leigh was the subject of an edition of The South Bank Show, which is included on the DVD (49:56). The format of the piece is familiar: Leigh is interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, and there are clips from all his feature films to date, including some of his TV work. Other interviewees include critics Derek Malcolm and Jonathan Romney. Finally, there is Leigh’s trailer made for the 1991 London Film Festival (1:16), which is certainly distinctive even if you dislike it – which many did. It is presented in 4:3, while the other two items are 16:9 anamorphic.
Also in the box is a 50-page booklet with a complete filmography, stills and quotes.
As his new film Happy-Go-Lucky opens in British cinemas, this box set confirms Leigh as one of the finest directors working in the UK, and given that it contains eleven discs plus a booklet, is reasonably priced.