After his sparkling foray into period drama (Topsy-Turvy) British writer-director Mike Leigh is back with yet another brilliantly observed examination of modern relationships and interaction.
This one is set on a working class housing estate in London, where Phil (the underrated Timothy Spall) drives a cab, his common-law wife Penny (Lesley Manville) works in the local supermarket, their daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) has a job in an old folks home and their fat son Rory (James Corden) just sits around all day. It becomes quickly clear that Phil has basically lost his way in life, drifting along in a detached way that is driving Penny nuts. Meanwhile, we also get to know the neighbours: Maureen (Ruth Sheen) works with Penny and struggles to communicate with her feisty teen daughter (Helen Coker), whose boyfriend (Daniel Mays) is a nasty piece of work indeed. And Ron (Paul Jesson) is Phil’s coworker, living with his alcoholic wife (Marion Bailey) and nympho daughter (Sally Hawkins).
Each of these characters goes through an emotional journey that is almost impossible to describe. They are all walking the knife-edge, clinging to a tiny shred of dignity and love but in danger of falling into complete and utter malaise. And the film’s genius is capturing this so astutely, revealing these people in all their complexity without ever offering simplistic answers. We are thrust right into the intimacies of everyday life for these people, examining their interrelationships on almost every conceivable level, but never in a remotely obvious way. This is strong, difficult stuff, and it’s played transparently by the actors, each of whom so completely inhabit their character that you believe they’re real people. The standouts are Spall and Sheen, who draw us into their characters through humor and intelligence, each in a completely different way. Meanwhile, Leigh’s expert writing and direction gives us profound insight into the relationships that even the characters themselves can’t see.
It’s a remarkable film; the dialogue takes our breath away with its sharp skewering of expectations and realities, the bleak honesty is balanced by the freshness of real life and moments of raw truth and comedy. It’s also that rare character-driven film that grips us even though it only once resorts to a plot event to drive the “story.” Don’t miss it.