Dr. Leigh and the women

Posted by · 6:50 pm · November 1st, 2010

I often hear Mike Leigh described as a great “women’s director,” though that’s really only half the truth. Vivid, probing male characters abound in Leigh films, often as vital counterpoints to female star turns (see Eddie Marsan in “Happy-Go-Lucky” or Timothy Spall in “Secrets and Lies”) but sometimes in center stage too: in “Naked,” David Thewlis gives what might be the richest performance in any Leigh film to date. (Hefty statement. Hefty performance.)

In other words, Leigh is not so much a great director of women as a great director of actors, period. But his actressy reputation sticks, partly because his women have an easier time impressing awards voters, but perhaps also because he’s tougher on the women he writes than most male auteurs, making harsh moral demands of some and pushing even the saintlier ones (Imelda Staunton’s Vera, Sally Hawkins’s Poppy) into behavioral extremes that render them tricky to play. There are no stock love interests, blandly supportive wives or femmes fatales in Leigh ensembles: every character, of either sex, in ensembles comes with an independent inner life.

I write this in response to a wonderful Guardian piece (and accompanying video) on Leigh’s collaborations with his actresses, most of them fostered over several films. Kate Kellaway has gathered interviews with the likes of current Oscar hopeful Lesley Manville, Sally Hawkins, Brenda Blethyn, Imelda Staunton and Alison Steadman, each discussing their working relationship with the director, as well as with Leigh himself. (Steadman, of course, is the director’s ex-wife, which may inform Leigh’s own self-effacing statement: “I’m someone who has deservedly been a signal failure at relationships … but I do have a good working relationship with actresses.”)

While the mutual affection between them is clear, so is the lingering, sometimes unsettling, attachment of the actresses to the character’s they helped create via Leigh’s well-known workshopping technique. I was touched by Staunton’s explanation on the evolution of her bond with the Oscar-nominated title character of “Vera Drake”:

Working on the role [was] “exhilarating”. It was only later that “the fall-out happened. Vera Drake made a dent in my head that, at the time, I was not aware of at all. Three or four years later, I was thinking about it all the time. I’d lost that family, lost that woman. Vera made a huge impact on me.”

Speaking of Staunton, I’m pleased to see Kellaway offer one of the few specific appreciations I’ve read for Staunton’s brief but arresting cameo in “Another Year,” a hard, sharp mini-performance that, after brooding on it for some time, I’ve come to see as the key to unlocking the film’s evasive stand on companionship and self-made unhappiness:

The extraordinary thing is that as middle-class, unhappily married Janet, she seems more of a casualty even than Vera Drake. Leigh is known for his films about working-class life but does not make the case for happiness having much to do with money. Staunton’s performance is amazing: her misery, as Janet, formidable. She excites tremendous, never-to-be-satisfied, curiosity in the audience.

Between contributions like Staunton’s and the airy comic relief of Karina Fernandez (who I’m happy to see also gets namechecked in this piece), the film’s ensemble can be seen to have so many tiers of support that considering either Manville or co-star Ruth Sheen as non-leads starts to sound reductive.

Anyway, plenty more to chew on, including Leigh’s appreciation of the late, great Katrin Cartlidge, who may well have had her own belated moment in the sun, like so many of Leigh’s over-40 actresses, had she not left us too early. Read the rest here.

[Photo: Miramax Films]

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

16 responses so far

  • 1 11-01-2010 at 8:21 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    On a roll today Guy.

    I love Mike Leigh and his actresses. Interestingly I actually just came back from meeting Sally Hawkins at a Dagenham screening. Leigh is in an elite class of directors when it comes to getting stellar female performances, a class I would probably only add Tarantino and Von Trier to at this point.

    As for Staunton in Another Year, at various times throughout the film I thought of her and thought she would return. I guess that is a sign of how impressive that cameo is. Can you elaborate on how her scene is so key though? Interested in your thoughts on that.

  • 2 11-01-2010 at 8:39 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Man I just found out that the Flamenco dance instructor in Happy Go Lucky is the girlfriend in Another Year. Now that I know Karina was both it makes that Happy Go Lucky role epic.

  • 3 11-01-2010 at 10:23 pm

    Ibad said...

    I always thought Cartlidge in Naked was almost about on Thewlis’ level — who himself was “best of decade” stuff right there.

  • 4 11-02-2010 at 1:02 am

    le duff pascal said...

    I was fortunate enough to see Katrin Cartlidge in a Simon McBurney’s play MNEMONIC when they toured in the outskirts of Paris. Seeing her on stage was a great theater experiment. I never forgot the first time I saw her in a movie, NAKED. She is still missed. And it’s nice to see in ANOTHER YEAR Peter Wight again, who was the night guard from NAKED. I believe Leigh will be nominated among the five directors, easily instead of Tom Hooper or Danny Boyle. The look of Lesley Manville in the last image of the movie, one more great scene in a Leigh movie. Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen are great too. Nice to see movies like that appreciated like this.

  • 5 11-02-2010 at 1:58 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    If I were an actor, I would jump at the chance to work with Mike Leigh. I mean, what other director gives you such an intimate relationship with a character? What other director is so willing to treat character development as a collaborative process and work for months shaping it with the men and women who embody them? And yet people accuse him of laziness! For goodness sake, why?

    Even more unfortunate is how the Academy usually ignores even the actors’ contributions to his films. As Scott Feinberg depressingly pointed out about a week and a half ago, only three performances in his entire filmography have garnered Oscar nominations. *sigh* Best of luck to Lesley Manville.

  • 6 11-02-2010 at 7:10 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    I always forget who beat Staunton for Vera Drake and then I check IMDB to see it was Swank in MDB. Blech.

    Not to mention she also beat Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. The Academy was just “flat out wrong”!!

  • 7 11-02-2010 at 7:37 am

    Maxim said...

    I was turned off from watching Leigh’s work after “Vera Drake” (which I have not seen but read a lot about) came out. I am a liberal but I am a prolifer and find abortion a difficult subject to deal with in movies, especially those that have a pro-abortion bent.

    (Here I should add that I am not some religious nut, my views on that perfectly secular and rather well formed).

    I know that this may seem like a silly, and, perhaps, even closeminded point to some, especially if made in regard to his other films but I find it difficult to actively want to see his films from that point on.

    It’s not that that they seem uninteresting by themselves, it’s just that… I’ve been turned off, you know? Knowing that he wrote the screenplay makes the issue harder for me. Again, I do not think that that I am actively ignoring him so much as find it difficult to get excited. I don’t know if that distinction makes sense.

    Perhaps, after some time passes, I’ll be able to get over it and will want to sit down and watch one of his films.

  • 8 11-02-2010 at 8:57 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    You should watch “Vera Drake” before taking such a stand, Maxim. I’m not its biggest fan, but it’s nowhere near as tidy or as message-y as you probably imagine it is.

  • 9 11-02-2010 at 9:02 am

    Ibad said...

    Yes, Maxim, it is difficult to handle the subject but you should judge how well Leigh handles the subject at all before getting turned off from his work because he handled it in the first place.

  • 10 11-02-2010 at 9:17 am

    Jim T said...

    I think Vera Drake is more about the central character than abortion in general. But it’s been a while since I saw it.

  • 11 11-02-2010 at 11:28 am

    Maxim said...

    I completely understand what you are trying to say and it is not very hard to relate to. There are few things that bother me more than people judging things that they have not seen. What I was trying to say… and it’s kind of hard to put into words, is that I didn’t judge Leighs work or perform any sort of mental evaluation of him or the movie. I really didn’t take a stand. It’s just that I felt like it wasn’t for me. And from that point on I felt it hard to revert back for any of his other movies.

    It doesn’t help that it usually takes quite a lot for me to decide that something is not for me.

  • 12 11-02-2010 at 1:09 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    That’s an absurd impulse, Maxim, and you ought to work to overcome it. I think, though, that most movie lovers have their own awful impulses. Like some people are inadvertently inclined to prefer misogynist work, despite being relatively feminist. Or I, for example, have trouble getting myself to watch foreign dramas, as I expect them to be boring for no adequate reason. Or someone won’t watch a genre film because of a preconception that drama/historical epic/biopic/wry comedy/dramedy are the only valid forms of cinema. Or that the work of Quentin Tarantino is just TOO FLASHY, based entirely on trailers. One has to be aware of this shit and try to purge it.

  • 13 11-02-2010 at 2:13 pm

    Maxim said...

    It’s certainly an impulse, I agree. But for me it runs a little deeper than the kinds of notions you’ve mentioned above. Those, I think tend to be a bit more subjective (and, too be sure, I know exactly what you were getting at – I think we all have a variation the kinds of internal blacklists you’ve mentioned. Hardly anyone is completely free of biases). I am actually pretty openminded and have no genre (music is another story) or language restrictions. As a result I am quite well versed in world cinema. My blacklists are almost entirely content based (and to that extent, it may not come as a suprise that I decided to avoid “Enter the Void”).

    In fact, reading your response made me wonder if, your feeling towards foreign dramas, may too have deeper causes? For example, there might have been a run of films that you’ve disliked and since they are not very common they ended up representing a large parcentage of the films of that kind you’ve seen. I mean isn’t it true that in order to be excited, one has to be tempted by something first? If nothing else, acknoweldging is the first step to the kind purge you’ve talked about.

    What I was trying to get at but as a little afraid of stating plainly for fear of being found closeminded, is that my issue with Leigh has little to do with excitement. Rememebr how I said I knew that I knew “Vera Drake” was not for me? Well, “Another Year” is on my radar but, I cannot overcome my, here it is, dissaproval of what I have read about the prior film.

  • 14 11-02-2010 at 4:12 pm

    matsunaga said...

    I think Vera Drake’s main subject is more of the goodness in the character of Staunton… As well as the family values of the film…

    Though Leigh handled the subject about abortion really well.. The film was well written and it didn’t looked tacky in addressing a sociological dilemma like abortion… It’s very independent in thought and Leigh handled it without compromising the subjects of the film..

    Staunton deserves the Oscar for Best actress that year in my opinion…

  • 15 11-02-2010 at 7:45 pm

    Glenn said...

    While I can understand the idea of being uneasy about “Vera Drake” (although it is a fantastic film, I thought), I don’t see how that should impact on wanting to watch “Happy-go-Lucky” or “Another Year” since they are so entirely different to “Vera Drake” (well, I haven’t seen “Another Year”, but it sure sounds different). “Vera Drake”, as far as I remember, is neither pro-abortion or against abortion so it’s not like Leigh himself is injecting his own moral agenda into the film, something that should be taken into account when choosing to see another one of his films.

  • 16 11-02-2010 at 8:16 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Vera Drake” is very much pro-choice, like any sane person should be.