I don’t think anyone makes films like Mike Leigh. He gets an idea for a story and characters he’d like to shoot a movie around. Then picks his actors and has them work out the characters for months. Through improvisations they develop how the story will play out. So he doesn’t really write scripts per se, but transcribes what he and his actors have worked out. That would never happen in Hollywood. If I have one issue with Leigh, it’s his penchant for having some of his characters speak in silly voices. Obviously the actors come up with them and the voices are probably based on someone they’ve met, but Leigh approves it. I think he took it too far in Career Girls.
High Hopes – Life in the Thatcher era. This was the first Leigh film I heard about, but not the first one I saw. An interesting little slice of life. Watch how Philip Davis ages through each Mike Leigh film he’s in (quite a few), with the first one being Grown-Ups.
Life is Sweet – This was my first Mike Leigh film, and I thought it was great. All the actors did a terrific job. Some folks may be put off by the voice Jane Horrocks chose to use, but you get used to it. This is just a simple little film about a family. If you want to get into Mike Leigh, start here.
Naked – Wow. This won the triple crown at Cannes (actor, director and picture). Huge departure from Leigh’s previous more upbeat works. This is heavy stuff. I showed this to a film class I was in, and one of my friends thought one of the reasons I liked it was because of the sex scenes (I’m lookin’ at you Tamera). I think this is the best shot of all of Leigh’s films. Leigh’s regular cinematographer, Dick Pope (don’t confuse him with The Matrix’s Bill Pope (Bowling Green, KY)), gets some beautiful compositions in this one. David Thewlis has never been better. The late Katrin Cartlidge has the funny voiced character in this Leigh film. Greg Cruttwell is a terrific bastard and it’s a shame he retired in ’97 (I suppose acting in George of the Jungle after being in something like Naked, would crush anyone’s soul).
Secrets & Lies – Brenda Blethyn gets the funny voice here. This was probably Leigh’s biggest hit in the states. I don’t think anything he’s done since has had as big an impact over here. I think it’s funnier than the marketing led us to believe. Marianne Jean-Baptiste gave an Oscar nominated performance, and Hollywood rewards her by giving her 3rd string roles in stuff like 28 Days and The Cell. At least you still have the stage, Marianne.
Topsy-Turvy – This is an entertaining behind-the-scenes of Gilbert & Sullivan and the creation of one their most famous works, The Mikado. It’s got the Mike Leigh regulars, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville. And if you pay attention you’ll see Gollum in a small role. And for you Harry Potter nerds, Moaning Myrtle plays the part of Yum-Yum.
Vera Drake – I’d like to know Mike Leigh’s secret. He gets damn fine performances out of people. This is another understated, but powerful film from him. Imelda Staunton probably should’ve won the Oscar instead of Hilary Swank (for Million Dollar Baby). As her reward, they stuck her in a Harry Potter movie, which probably quintupled the amount of people who’ve seen her act before. Kids, you should do a double feature of Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, and Vera Drake. You will learn valuable life lessons.
Happy-Go-Lucky – You will either enjoy Sally Hawkins‘ portrayal of Poppy, or you will want to kill her. I’m probably in the latter camp. But still, it’s amazing what she pulled off in this Oscar nominated role (make sure you see her bit parts in Vera Drake and All or Nothing to see the difference in her characters. she’s quite good). Also amazing is Eddie Marsan, who’s completely transformed from the simple man he played in Vera Drake.