It's not a given that great film directors be humane. Often what confounds people is when there are artists whose works they love turn out not to be lovable in their personal lives. In the movies of British director Mike Leigh, Shlomo Schwartzberg finds a director whose work strongly reflects his humanist sensibility.
The Singularly Humane Filmmaking of Mike Leigh
His films, and Another Year is no exception, invariably present sympathetic multi-faceted portraits of ordinary Britons, middle-class, lower middle-class or working-class folk, who are simply trying to get through life, be they the disillusioned socialists of High Hopes (1988), the determined chef trying to make a go of his own restaurant in Life is Sweet (1990) or the troubled families coping on a run down council estate in All or Nothing (2002). The beauty of Leigh’s films – and most of them are fully successful efforts – is that his protagonists are drawn so sympathetically and with such complexity that you feel that you know them and come to care about them deeply. That’s not nearly so common in our current cinematic age of crass, facile and empty movies like Kick-Ass, Life During Wartime and Grown Ups, to name just three of the year’s most offensive movies. (Leigh also made a film called Grown-Ups for TV in 1980 but any commonalities between it and the puerile Adam Sandler movie stop at the title.) I actually saw the word humane used by a reviewer to describe Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, which only goes to suggest how one can pervert the English language. Solondz’s films are anything but humane while Leigh's movies are suffused with humanity.
Leigh, who used to use the credit ‘Devised by Mike Leigh’ to describe the collaborative endeavor involved in his moviemaking – he always asks his cast to create back stories of their characters that even if not directly referenced in the film help them settle into and inhabit their roles – is as far removed from the glitzy, polished Hollywood model of directing as can be. (I still remember catching a glimpse of him at the Oscar ceremony, where he was nominated for 1996’s Secrets & Lies, looking slightly disheveled and completely out of place. You could almost imagine him thinking, “What am I doing in this event? I don’t belong here.”) He’s actually the filmic equivalent of a self-effacing talented craftsman – the work is so seamless you can be forgiven for not realizing that a lot of sweat went into creating the beautiful ‘object’ on screen.
|Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in Another Year|
|Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville in Another Year|
|David Thewlis in Naked|
|Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman in Nuts in May|
Mostly, though, Leigh pretty much pull offs anything he wants or sets out to do on film, including overtly political dramas (1985’s telefilm Four Days in July, which dealt with ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland) and even quirky shorts (1987's The Short and Curlies). And while Another Year isn’t quite up to his best work – it’s a bit monotonous and not quite as expansive as it could have been – it's a good film that still demonstrates that even less than perfect Leigh is better than most filmmakers’ output. Like virtually all his films, it offers up something of permanent value and heft.