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by Lawrence Garcia Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

People In Rooms: The Films of Mike Leigh

January 20, 2023

In the commentary track to Grown-Ups (1980), one of eight television films Mike Leigh made for the BBC, the director remarks that many of his filmmaking decisions flow from asking one basic question: “Is this a man in a room, or a room with a man in it?” His films, which have launched the careers of several great English actors, are almost invariably concerned with the former. But this distinction conveys Leigh’s conception of human behavior is fundamentally relational. In his films, there is no such thing as a character without a milieu, no person without the place they inhabit. For Leigh, a mode of behavior in vacuo just makes no sense. In Naked (1993), David Thewlis’ Johnny asks a security guard (Peter Wight) what he is protecting. And when the man answers “space,” Johnny has some fun with this response, joking that he had better watch out, lest someone break in and steal all that space. But the line is amusing for another reason, too — for in Leigh’s filmic worlds there is, in some sense, no such thing as empty space. There is no awareness, no experience of physical space, without a corresponding understanding of how people move and act within it.

One consequence of this view is that in Leigh’s conception of personality, people don’t have a “truthful” core of being or a “real” subjective center so much as a center of gravity: an orientation to the world defined by their myriad relations to their environment. Built up over time, these relations show up like so many “layers” or “strata” of behavior, which may be more or less visible depending on the given situation. And though we may modify or mask these behavioral layers as we age, we find that they nonetheless persist, just waiting to emerge in the right situation or setting. In Grown-Ups, Dick and Mandy (Philip Davis and Lesley Manville), a young couple moving into their first home, discover that they now live next door to their former teacher Ralph Butcher (Sam Kelly) and his wife Christine (Lindsay Duncan). No sooner do they find this out than essentially childish, schoolyard behavior starts to emerge behind the brittle facades of adult life. The film’s extended climax, precipitated by Mandy’s older sister Gloria (Brenda Blethyn), involves both couples, and for as long as the scene lasts, their present neighbor relations give way to old classroom dynamics which one might have thought lost to the past.

In Grown-Ups, as in the rest of his filmography, Leigh favors an exaggerated acting style that lies somewhere between realism and caricature. His approach to behavior is, for this reason, best understood as continuous with the English tradition of the comedy of humors, as we have it from the dramatist Ben Jonson. Neither realistic portraits nor ungenerous cartoons, Leigh’s characters are humors in the Jonsonian sense: figures who display an almost ritualistic pattern of behavior, their actions dictated by whatever it is they are obsessed with. Dickens’ Bleak House alone, with its hypocrites, parasites, and pedants, presents a vast menagerie of standard types of humors; and taken as a whole, Leigh’s filmography may be seen as contributing to this tradition. In Grown-Ups, Brenda Blethyn’s fussy, socially obtuse Gloria is the signal example, but most every character in the film may be considered a humor: from Christine, with her extreme solicitousness, to Ralph, with his guttural noises and imperious teaching style, to Mandy’s friend Sharon, with her unvarying tone and expression of weary dissatisfaction.

The ability to recognize a humor requires, of course, that one be able to see the character’s action as habitual, and thereby place it within a larger pattern of behavior. Leigh’s directorial debut, Bleak Moments (1971), negates this principle, preventing us from building up a sense of the characters’ routine, thereby rendering the action ambiguous and suspending us in dramatic stasis. More often, though, Leigh establishes a clear behavioral baseline, which creates the expectation of some transformation — whether of character, situation, or both. Structured to the rhythms of a working week, Hard Labour (1973) centers on a put-upon house cleaner, Mrs. Thornton (Liz Smith), who throughout the film is reduced to a silent, marginal presence. In each of her interactions — with her husband, her wealthy employer, a nun soliciting donations, and so on — we are led to wonder whether this time, she will break her silence: Which situation, if any, will precipitate an appreciable change in her situation? The film builds to a climactic confession scene that provides an answer of sorts. But we also realize that there will likely be many more confessions before any decisive action is taken.

The most obvious tag of a humor is the repetition of set phrases, as one finds with Beverly (Alison Steadman) from Abigail’s Party (1977), a pushy, intolerably solicitous host who makes sure that her guests have a good time in the way that she decides. As one also finds in that film, however, Leigh’s more inarticulate characters are no less obsessive or habit-driven than his talkers. And what they show more clearly than the latter is Leigh’s ability to capitalize on the physical specificity and non-verbal immediacy afforded by the cinema in contrast to the stage. The most memorable scene of Bleak Moments distills an awkward afternoon of tea into a rapid barrage of close-ups: a staccato succession of faces contorting in failed attempts to communicate. The precise effect of the scene, which plays something like an extended variation of a Kuleshov experiment, would be difficult, if not impossible to replicate in the theater, but recur in various forms across Leigh’s filmography. In The Kiss of Death (1977), the socially aberrant behavior of an undertaker’s assistant (David Threlfall) is seen across a range of situations, expanding our sense of his social awareness beyond what a first impression might suggest. In Meantime (1983), Tim Roth’s shy, inarticulate Colin also functions according to a kind of Kuleshov principle: His unvarying facial expressions and general passivity, cut into a variety of social interactions, lead his family and friends to project what they like on him. As social pressures mount, we expect some sort of change in him, but as in the case of Hard Labour’s Mrs. Thornton, we are denied the outward markers of character transformation — which only heightens the surprise of him shouting back at his dad near the film’s end. His larger social situation may not have altered in the slightest, but his world has changed irrevocably.

More generally, Meantime illustrates how Leigh manages to create lucid dramatic structures while still disrupting them with tangential comic interludes. In retrospect, it is possible to identify the film’s climax (Colin’s outburst) and the inciting action (his wealthy aunt’s offer to have him paint a room in her house), and to draw a clear causal link between the two. But it is indicative of Leigh’s approach that the aunt’s offer is presented alongside the arrival of Peter Wight’s estate manager, whose memorable monologue all but crowds out the former. That a scene of such central narrative importance should be pushed to the margins in this way is a recurring pattern in Leigh’s filmography: Think of the visit of the former photography shop owner in Secrets & Lies (1996), which goes nowhere in terms of the larger narrative, but which practically stops the film in its tracks for as long as the scene lasts. Leigh’s scripts always have a clear endpoint in mind, but their scene-to-scene rhythms are rarely driven by dramatic exigency. Home Sweet Home (1982), for instance, cannily structures its events around the alternating shifts of three postmen, thus concealing its central narrative thrust and arriving at its climax almost by sleight of hand. What Leigh’s humorous characters and filmic structures convey is that to break out of one’s everyday patterns of action — which, because habitual, are mostly automatic — requires an enormous force of will. Or, as in Vera Drake (2004), a drastic change in situation. That film’s opening half acclimates us to the metronomic routine of Imelda Staunton’s housewife-cum- abortionist, over which she exerts a measure of control and outward competence; following her arrest, the film then observes as she moves through the British legal system with an automatic, almost childlike obeisance to authority. On one level, Vera Drake’s apparent naivete regarding the consequences of her activities aligns her with the literary archetype of the holy fool. On another, though, it illustrates how any action can become automatic, requiring only a convergence of physical competence and a lack of introspection.

In Naked, by far Leigh’s most celebrated film, we have something of the opposite situation: For Thewlis’ Johnny, every action has a potentially cosmic significance, freighted with meaning that he cannot slough off except via a self-conscious, logorrheic stream of invective and erudition. (His contrast with Sandra, the eminently practical nurse who tends to his injured foot, could not be clearer.) If we can say that Leigh has never filmed anything but people in rooms, then Johnny is simply someone for whom the entire universe is his room. And if he seems powerless, unable to act, it is perhaps because, as Nietzsche writes of Hamlet, he feels it ridiculous or humiliating that he should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint.

Much has been written of how Leigh’s improvisatory methods inform the psychological texture of his films, investing his characters with rich, believable histories. I would only add that what distinguishes Leigh is not (just) that his films convince us of their characters’ lived existences, but that they demonstrate, with unusual clarity, how past modes of behavior persist into the present. Earlier I said that in his films, people don’t have “real” subjective centers so much as centers of gravity. With this in mind, we may say that Leigh’s films are designed to displace his characters’ centers of gravity, to shift their orientation in space, and in doing so draw out those modes of behavior which we may have thought lost to time. 

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 3.