A fun film festival programming assignment that encouraged us to make connections between director Mike Leigh’s work and another director of our choice!
It’s all about those long-drawn-out silences. Or the never-ending rambles. People’s desire to connect but their inability to do so is a reality that humanist filmmakers consistently tap into to understand various forms of loneliness and miscommunications. In doing so, they try to find potential solutions that may alleviate them. Sometimes those uncomfortable silences do become comfortable. Sometimes verbal communication does go beyond just being white noise, becoming an actual means of expression. Other times, the solutions remain out of reach, with the silences continuing to suppress this loneliness, and the surrounding noises only exasperating it more.
The films of acclaimed British director Mike Leigh have continuously reflected and lamented this very human condition. Lauded most for his realistic rendering of complex, three-dimensional characters that he achieves through rigorous and extensive improvisation rehearsals with his actors, Leigh has consistently challenged traditional good/evil binaries that define mainstream cinema. In doing so, all his films – from overtly comedic historical biopics (Topsy-Turvy) to slice-of-life domestic dramas (Secrets & Lies, Another Year) – attempt to dig deeper into their characters’ inner lives; to deconstruct his characters’ noisy, imperfect surfaces to reveal their desperate desire to connect.
Critically-lauded indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt similarly observes the inner lives of her protagonists located at the fringes of American society. By rooting her films in traditional genre narratives that she then uproots by deliberately slowing down the narrative, action, and dialogue, Reichardt diverts the viewers’ attention away from these characters’ external journeys. Instead, her slow, meditative dramas (Old Joy, Certain Women), and her revisionist genre films (Night Moves, First Cow), place her outcast characters at the forefront to make the stories most about their repressed desires and loneliness.
Together, these two deeply empathetic filmmakers’ works observe (occasionally, providing solutions to) the varied ways in which people, both male, and female, try to express their desire to connect.
4th July 2021
“WE ARE ALL IN PAIN”
OPENING FILM: Secrets & Lies (Leigh, 1996)
Leigh’s heart-wrenching story of a dysfunctional family at odds with each other is filled with uncomfortable silences (the secrets) and prickly ramblings (the lies). The already-estranged Purley family’s lives slowly unravel as the desperately lonely Cynthia discovers that her mixed-race daughter she gave away, Hortense, wants to meet her. The restrained treatment of this potentially overwrought maternal melodrama, coupled with extraordinary performances from its ensemble cast, provides a window into all of its characters’ lives, never asking for sympathy but consistently encouraging empathy.
5th July 2021
DOUBLE BILL #1: Another Year (Leigh, 2010) & Certain Women (Reichardt, 2016)
Tightly structured around the four seasons in a particular year – spring, summer, autumn, winter – Another Year lyrically observes a woman’s changing expressions of loneliness. Tom and Gerri are a seemingly happy couple regularly frequented by different unhappy friends throughout a year. Mary, an alcoholic motor-mouth who desperately seeks their validation and their unmarried son’s romantic affection, is the only recurring one. Filled with moments of piercing silences that decreasingly contrast with Lesley Manville’s overbearing but always earnest portrayal of this woman, the film is a profoundly moving tale about the limits of friendly sympathy.
Loosely based on three short stories from Maile Meloy, Certain Women is a quietly aching drama about three lonely women who lead unextraordinary lives. Set in the chilly and desolate landscape of Livingston, Montana, the film observes these women’s everyday lives. One is a lawyer, the other a housewife, and the third a rancher. Incredibly patient in detailing their routines and only teasing tangential connections between these stories, the film empathizes with these women’s burdened quietudes that have so deeply become a part of their daily lives.
6th July 2021
“HOW WILL THE WORLD EVER — END?”
Double Bill #2: Naked (Leigh, 1993) & Night Moves (Reichardt, 2013)
Leigh’s most controversial and brazenly cynical black comedy is a trip into the heart of darkness of Thatcher-era Britain. Naked follows its distraught and nihilistic protagonist, Johnny, from house to house and street-to-street, continuously ranting about the impending apocalypse and berating anyone who wants to see a ray of light at the end of the deep dark tunnel. The atmospheric camerawork, the haunting soundtrack, and most of all, David Thewlis’ ferocious central performance provide an overwhelmingly despondent look at a repugnant man who only seems to force loneliness upon himself.
Reichardt’s quietly despairing environmental thriller offers a prescient look at modern-day paranoia about the world’s possible eco-collapse. Following three radical environmentalists who want to bring change to society by bombing a hydroelectric dam, Night Moves focuses on their meticulous planning of this bombing and the aftermath of its execution. The austere camerawork, the extended emphasis on silences, and Jesse Eisenberg’s deeply internalized performance inform the film’s bleak overtones that expertly link the political rot with the personal.
7h July 2021
Double Bill #3: Career Girls (Leigh, 1997) & Old Joy (Reichardt, 2006)
Leigh’s follow-up to his biggest international success (Secrets & Lies) sees him downsize to make his most unusually breezy film. The reunion between Hannah and Annie, two successful career women, prompts them to think nostalgically about their college years with various men and each other. Featuring two excellent central performances and the director’s trademark wise-cracking dialogue, Career Girls is a moving celebration of female friendships.
Based on a short story written by co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, Old Joy is Reichardt’s most minimalist film. The reunion between Mark and Kurt, two men in their mid-thirties belonging to different social classes, leads them to go on a tranquil weekend camping trip in the Cascade Mountain range, east of the industrial Portland, Oregon. The subtle juxtapositions between the serene landscape, and the frosty relationship between the two men, and the incredibly measured central performances provide an implicit but incisive deconstruction of fraught male friendships.
8th July 2021
“WE CAN TAKE IT ON OUR OWN TERMS”
Double Bill #4: Topsy-Turvy (Leigh, 1999) & First Cow (Reichardt, 2019)
Leigh’s foray into the historical biopic sees him exchange realist drama for broad satirical comedy without necessarily losing his trademark empathy for any of his characters. The initial struggles of the creative collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan and their eventual realization of The Mikado in 1885 provide the narrative base for Topsy-Turvy. However, Leigh’s extended focus on each member involved in the creation process of The Mikado and the uniformly excellent performances from the ensemble make his film a boisterous celebration of communicative collaboration, not just that of Gilbert & Sullivan but every single person involved in the production.
The silence typical of Reichardt films also informs First Cow – a historical fable set in 1820 on the rugged landscapes of a colonized Oregon county. Two strangers, the effeminate “Cookie” and a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu, meet by coincidence to forge a business partnership involving the former baking (delicious-looking) biscuits and then selling them to people and the British establishment. The unfussy camerawork, the magical score, and the understated chemistry between the two lead characters capture the ethereal relationship between the two men that juxtaposes with the violent rise of capitalism beautifully.