There are not many British filmmakers as venerated, decorated or revered as Mike Leigh. This month, London’s BFI Southbank is running an exhaustive season of his films and TV work, a rare opportunity to take in the breadth of his career now spanning an incredible 50 years. Ever since 1971’s excruciating but brilliant Bleak Moments, the story of a lonely secretary, landed in cinemas, Leigh’s unique perspective on British society and class has become increasingly resonant.
Curiously, Leigh would not make another feature film until 1988’s London-set High Hopes, the third of his unofficial trilogy of films reflecting on the Thatcher era, following unemployment drama Meantime and Four Days in July, which dealt with The Troubles. In that 17-year interim period, Leigh built his reputation at the BBC in TV plays like Abigail’s Party and honed his infamous working method with actors, building characters on a one-to-one basis rather than using a conventional script.
Since High Hopes, Leigh has become one of cinema’s great poets of family life, dealing with issues like bulimia (Life Is Sweet) and adoption (Secrets and Lies, his 1995 Cannes-winning film). He’s as adept at crafting women protagonists (in films like Happy-Go-Lucky and Career Girls) as he is with male characters. As he’s got older – he’s now 78 – he’s turned to the past, to real artist figures like Gilbert and Sullivan (Topsy-Turvy) and JMW Turner (Mr. Turner) and real events (Peterloo), films that have increased in scale and complexity.
Across the season at BFI Southbank, numerous screenings are accompanied by Q&As with the director and various cast members. On Saturday November 13 there is a screening of Naked, his 1993 masterpiece starring David Thewlis – who won Best Actor in Cannes for his searing performance as the nihilistic loner Johnny. Alongside a new 4K restoration of the film undertaken by the BFI National Archives, Leigh will be joined by Thewlis’ co-star Lesley Sharp. The following day, Leigh and actor Jim Broadbent will take to the stage after Topsy-Turvy.
Later in the month, Leigh’s 2002 tale of a working-class taxi driver and his family, All or Nothing, featuring a very young James Corden, will also see Leigh joined by Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey, two regular actors of his. For Vera Drake, his 2004 abortion tale that won him the Golden Lion in Venice, he will be accompanied by Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis. Another Year, a touching story of marriage and friendship, will see the director together with Manville and Ruth Sheen.
For those unable to get to the BFI, StudioCanal will also be releasing new editions of All or Nothing (in a 4K restoration, overseen by Leigh’s cinematographer Dick Pope) and Vera Drake on BluRay, DVD and digital platforms. Faber & Faber have also reissued Amy Raphael’s book Leigh on Leigh, updated to include his recent work, including Peterloo and Mr. Turner. It’s the perfect primer to begin exploring one of Britain’s greatest directors.
The Mike Leigh Season runs at the BFI Southbank until 30 November. Find out more here.