Mike Leigh has shown throughout his long career that even at our most mundane we, humans, are entertaining. His characters are obnoxious, whiny, pretentious, awkward, and belligerent – personality traits that in real life are predisposed to irritate. But it is through these people that we witness the nature of Leigh’s empathy. By 1971, with his first feature film, Bleak Moments, Leigh had already mastered how to construct lives onscreen which reveals the inherent awkwardness of being human. More than any artist, Leigh is tuned to how we really operate, depicting with stunning accuracy how difficult and complex it is to be a social creature.
Before watching Bleak Moments, I had taken the word “bleak” too literally, because what makes the film bleak is not only the characters’ lives but how difficult it is for them to talk to each other. The title then seemed, to me, to be a joke. The mumbling and nervous shuffling is sweet, but sometimes it’s excruciating. That is if I’m imagining myself in that same situation. But like witnessing two people struggling on a first date, sitting through a similar level of discomfort in a Mike Leigh film is a guilty pleasure. Although I was alone, I still felt an urge to turn to someone and say “bleak”.
The film mainly follows Sylvia, a young woman who never says how she really feels unless she has had a drink. And when she does speak her mind, what emerges is a wickedly silly sense of humor – usually lost on the recipient. She lives alone with her sister, Hilda, who has complex care needs, but they are surrounded by a small handful of characters, all struggling with some sort of communication deficiency. Bleak Moments is a film where characters float between meaningful and meaningless interactions, all of which are treated by Leigh as equal components of his distinctly odd but natural aesthetic. One string of scenes, in particular, defines this image of the world as inhabited by awkward souls bumping into one another and trying their best to form the kind of connections that make living worthwhile.
Norman, Sylvia and Hilda’s lodger, is invited into the living room to play the guitar, and although Norman is far from talented, the lyrics and melody come through just enough for the two sisters to enjoy the absence of any obligation to speak. It is freedom, and Leigh uses a single static shot that holds these three characters in this moment of quiet joy. However, with the arrival of Peter, Sylvia’s admirer, and Pat, Sylvia’s talkative friend, everyone is forced, by social norms, to have a conversation. A painful silence ensues. Leigh quick fires between close-ups of each character’s face as they try to endure the dire situation. Everyone can only think about the fact that no one is talking, and so the silence rolls on as the discomfort grows and the thinking about their discomfort intensifies.
Except in Sylvia’s case. Frustration shows in the subtle ways that her face changes as she looks around the room at everyone’s pained expression, even though she isn’t confident enough to break the silence. The whole scene ends on this face, as uncomfortable as she is disappointed with herself and her friends. It began with music and ended with five people unable to say a word to each other.
Throughout the film, Sylvia slips away to her room to drink from a bottle of spirits. She lacks confidence in a way that is typical of Mike Leigh’s talent for depicting, through a single person, a universal pain. The force of Anne Raitt‘s performance reveals Sylvia’s true feelings in her eyes or the shape of her mouth. She is clearly aware of her own timidity and resents this part of herself, as she fails to be the person she wishes people could see. If only those around Sylvia understood her and how lonely this makes her feel. But the rest of them have their own problems.
At every opportunity, Pat hounds Sylvia to let her take Hilda out on day trips. Pat’s meddling is obnoxious, but it becomes clear that Hilda is like a substitute child to her, and that these day trips give Pat meaning beyond her work and taking care of her mother. Our instinct is to judge people by how they make us feel, especially when their personality is so different from ours. Leigh’s films are filled with people who are shockingly irritating, but the detail and care with which he and his actors build these characters make it impossible to avoid caring for them. It’s hard to apply this level of empathy in life, but Leigh reminds us that it is sometimes worth the effort.
The final shot of his late-career gem, Another Year, is an image of such intense sadness that, four years on, I can still picture with clarity the expression on Lesley Manville’s face. Such is Leigh’s presence in the lives of the people who love his work. Bleak Moments confirms that his talent was as potent in his twenties as it is now in his seventies. Sylvia giggles at her own silly jokes, the sherry still stinging her lips, in the company of people who do not understand her, and the barrier of the screen is the only thing that separates her from her audience.
Leigh himself has said that “Bleak Moments remains, in some ways, the mother of all Mike Leigh films.” This is true of both his characters and the images of their lives. How he captures Sylvia – intimate, sympathetic but never intrusive – is how he went on to capture many others. No matter the end result, this remains a constant in his films. His work is varied, but Leigh’s best moments are the ones that link like a steel chain all the pieces of his style and stories together. Starting with Bleak Moments, his films are consistently moving, universal and addictive, especially when compared to the many others who have tried to capture with film what he does so instinctively.
What’s your favourite Mike Leigh film? Let us know in the comments!
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