High Hopes (UK, 1988)

MPW-53936Directed by: Mike Leigh. I casually stumbled across my first Mike Leigh film about a year ago—Naked—which proved to be one of my favourite movies in recent memory (in fact I think I’d like to go buy it), and when I casually stumbled across this one, even though the cover didn’t look nearly as cool as Naked‘s criterion set, I had to give it the benefit of the doubt. High Hopes is like Brassed Off but less nauseatingly cheerful, and more cheerfully nauseating. Does that make sense? Leigh is one more in what is growing to be a fond appreciation I’ve been cultivating for British class-based films, usually from the left, from people like Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay. Out of them all, Mike Leigh seems to have the most uneasy, distinct  vision; his films take place in their own little world, less hallucinatory than, say, Terry Gilliam, but certainly not as directly “realist” as Loach strives to be. Whereas in Naked, both rich and poor are conveyed in a fairly contorted, somewhat unflattering light—or at least the working class male isn’t entirely admirable even compared to the despicable rich leading male—in this film, that divide is much more unbalanced. The central working class couple of Philip Davis and Ruth Sheen is pretty much as solid as a rock, and it’s downright welcoming compared to the exaggeratedly pretentious bourgeois neighbors, the hysterically obnoxious sister, and the sleazy, greasy, womanizing brother-in-law. In this funhouse mirror look at society, these two modest, poor-yet-hardworking, weed smoking, quasi-socialist (or socialist enough to visit the grave of Marx) couple represent the best picture of the working class that a movie could show. Their warmth displayed towards the troubled, aging, ailing mother (an excellent turn by Edna Doré) is, though really nice to have, something of a cheat, in my opinion. It’s so easy to like them, and maybe I’m mistrustful of that. With that last scene at the top of the roof, overlooking a very un-picturesque, industrial, Thatcherite 80’s London (which Leigh holds brilliantly throughout the end credits), I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away. In reductive terms, it can’t be: poor people good, rich people bad. The sister and brother-in-law are perhaps even worse than the rich neighbors. It’s Davis and Sheen’s awareness, their social authenticity that sets them apart—even though they don’t actually do anything to change their situation, as Leigh establishes brilliantly with a cynical exchange with an idealist friend of theirs. Is the message then: unawareness bad, awareness good? Perhaps that’s enough. I try to play Devil’s Advocate with this stuff, but ultimately I do really appreciate these kinds of films, and I did appreciate this one. It was great seeing Phil Davis—I recognized him, under all of that beard and hair and glasses, from some excellent supporting roles in Brighton Rock and Cassandra’s Dream. It’s a shame he isn’t used more often in leading roles because he does a great job here of conveying skeptical cynicism while somehow letting some genuine human warmth to glow through. I think this film may push me over the limit and get me to actively seek out some Mike Leigh so I don’t have to wait for the next chance encounter.

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One response to “High Hopes (UK, 1988)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2012 | Offhand Reviews·

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