In the 1980s, as Britain laboured under the evils of Thatcherism, the creativity and strength of its filmmakers fought against it. There was a whole wave of fantastic films during that period that penetrated deep into the social world of Britain at the time. These were films that scrutinised and analysed class relations amidst a rapidly changing Britain, films with their hearts firmly in the Old Labour ballpark, films that were ridden with anger one moment, with humour and sweetness in the next. On the angry side, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a seminal masterpiece. Elsewhere My Beautiful Launderette tackled the social issues of a changing Britain with a keen and engaging eye, and Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives looked melancholically at an old Britain that was fast disappearing, a Britain that, in some ways, ought to stay in the past, but certainly a Britain that had produced a particular class of people that were slowly being stamped out.
Mike Leigh’s 1988 film High Hopes is in excellent company amongst these films. Its cross-section of fools, losers and jerks are a highly fascinating bunch. Mike Leigh’s famed method of producing films – actors take part in improvisational workshops for a long time until they form concrete characters and only then does Leigh begin writing and eventually filming – is a sure-fire way of producing great characters and great acting performances. Occasionally, despite this unique method, Mike Leigh’s films aren’t necessarily always great films. His weaker works lack a solid structure and focus and instead come off as a series of endless vignettes which never build to anything. High Hopes however, builds to a rather incredible finish.
The two characters we follow most closely for the duration of the film are Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen). They are two socialists living in a tiny flat in London without much money to their name. Cyril’s sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) is a highly neurotic housewife who fantasises about living the high life but is unfortunately married to a Del Boy-type scumbag who has little interest in her. Their mother, Mrs. Bender (Edna Doré) is the last council house tenant living on a now-gentrified street, and her new next-door neighbours are the frightfully awful kind of shithouse nouveau rich Tories that began to infect Britain from the 80s onwards. Despite their pretensions to taste and class, compounded by their adoration of Received Pronunciation English, one can still glimpse a sight of their old working-class background when they begin to pronounce “yes” as “yah”. A delightful touch and a delightful jab at such people.
From this initially strange hodgepodge of caricatures and stereotypes slowly begins to emerge a film of surprising nuance and grace. This is where Mike Leigh’s method of directing really comes to the fore. Under a normal script, High Hopes would likely have devolved into a farcical satire of class in the UK, with a bunch of stereotypes all being played for laughs. Under Mike Leigh’s tutelage, these actors are then allowed to focus their characters into something that eventually becomes much more powerful and poignant. Valerie’s confusing, frustrating and neurotic behaviour would be played for laughs all the way through in a lesser film. Here, whilst she has plenty of strong comedic moments, they are always tinged with the suggestion of something much grimmer and sadder. It is only towards the end of the film that we begin to realise what a cripplingly lonely character this is, and it suddenly turns the rest of Heather Tobias’ performance on its head. It gets to the point where it becomes incredibly difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.
Similarly this is the case with Edna Doré’s performance. Initially, she seems to be a grumpy pensioner, someone who appears bitter at the world and prepared to shout at clouds. Cyril mentions disapprovingly at some point that she has voted Tory all her life, despite being working class the whole way through. Yet, his mother lacks any clear political compass. She just needs love and care, the one thing she is being cruelly denied by almost everyone around her. Again, an initially simplistic looking character turns out to have incredible depth and nuance to her. The only caricatures who are left as caricatures by the end of the film are the upper-class neighbours next to the poor old lady, and quite frankly Tories of that ilk aren’t real people anyway, so it’s all good.
I fear I may be making High Hopes sound like a left-wing treatise on how shite Tories are. Whilst it is true that Tories are shite, the film certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to our two socialist protagonists. Cyril and Shirley are as left-wing as they come, but as so often with the Left throughout the modern world, it is a lot of talk and little walk. Cyril complains about Tory destruction of the welfare state but doesn’t unionise at his job. He and Shirley visits Karl Marx’s grave in London, and Cyril ponders the meaning of his message that the point of interpreting the world is to change it before the grave is invaded by Japanese tourists snapping photos. “Change what?” he exclaims. The world has moved on from the industrial age he moans. The couple argue about whether or not to have a baby. Cyril expounds Rad-Left claptrap about families being a bourgeois construct but can’t elucidate why, with little to no evidence to back up his faulty dialectical discourse against the simple desires of a human heart, the uneducated philistine!
High Hopes comes to a head around Mrs. Bender’s 70th birthday party. I won’t reveal what happens, though I will point out there is one agonisingly painful shot where the whole family erupt in argument, and the camera simply stays put on a closeup of Edna Doré’s face, staring at the table, quiet and sad. The expression on her face grows beyond simple sadness and the scene is an incredibly difficult one to watch. It is at this point that the film goes from being ‘pretty good’ to ‘outstanding’. It is during this scene that suddenly the rest of the film becomes crystal clear and prescient.
Ultimately, High Hopes stands as one of Mike Leigh’s best achievements, up there with Naked and Secrets & Lies. There are some minor flaws in the film, largely a result of the film attempting to run such a fine line between comedy and drama. It is a difficult line at the best of times, and the bitterness contained within some of the film’s scenes threatens to completely tear things apart. Eventually the film does find its footing, and it finishes on an exceptionally strong note. If one good thing came out of the years of Thatcherism, it was a series of superb films from a host of excellent British directors, of which High Hopes is one.