Mike Leigh is perhaps the most interesting British filmmaker of the past two decades. Nominated for five Academy Awards and the winner of accolades and prizes at every major international film festival, including Cannes, Berlin and Venice, Leigh has established himself as a significant figure in global cinema.
After more than a decade writing and directing for British television (Nuts in May, Abigail's Party, Four Days in July and other works), he became known to a wide international audience with his Life Is Sweet (1991), an account of a deeply dysfunctional but strangely endearing working class family, and Naked (1993), a lacerating picture of alienation and frustrated idealism.
Leigh's greatest box office success to date has been Secrets & Lies (1996), the story of a white woman who comes face to face with the half-black daughter she gave up for adoption years earlier. In Topsy-Turvy (1999), the filmmaker examined the artistic-theatrical process in a work about the Victorian lyricist-composer team of Gilbert and Sullivan. He treated the problem of illegal abortions in the 1950s in Vera Drake (2004).
Leigh (born 1943 in Salford), the director of 18 feature films in all, has been at work during a difficult political and cultural time—"impossible," as he described it to me. In a generally bleak artistic landscape, he has stood out importantly as someone who has attempted to make complicated and sensitive—and socially engaged—films, also accessible to broad audiences. His method of building up characters and plots out of intense discussion and improvisation lasting months often yields remarkable results.
As Leigh notes, he is anything but a naturalist. He refers to his love of circus, vaudeville and theater. His films do not imitate everyday human activity, nor do his characters repeat ordinary conversation. The events and dialogue are deliberately heightened, as part of an effort to get behind the reality of day-to-day life. The exaggerated, sometimes grotesquely exaggerated, goings-on take their place in a certain British tradition. André Breton once commented something to the effect that there was no need for a surrealist movement in England because life and art there were already surreal enough.
his film career has had its share of ups and downs, veering occasionally toward sentimentality and occasionally toward condescension, owes much to the unfavorable climate. The Thatcherite counteroffensive against the working class and the protracted rightward lurch of the Labour Party and the trade unions, which entirely abandoned the population to its fate, have framed the past several decades. The systematic dismantling of the welfare state, the destruction of entire industries and communities, the attempt to eradicate social solidarity in favor of ruthless individualism and related socio-cultural processes have made their impact felt. In a traditional society such as Britain, the traumatizing consequences have been particularly severe.
More than he perhaps suspects or has intended, Leigh has registered and often critiqued these trends. He considers himself a socialist and a proponent of social equality. In person, he is intelligent, sometimes combative, always articulate. He hopes his next project will be a film about the great British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), for which, disgracefully, the financing has been difficult to organize.
I began our discussion at his offices in London with a question about his most recent movie, Happy-Go-Lucky.