BRIT PICK: High Hopes (1988)

High Hopes (UK, 1988)
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Dore, Philip Jackson

We tend to think of Mike Leigh as a cornerstone of British cinema - someone who has always been in the medium, doing what he does best in the only way he knows how. But in fact Leigh's long journey to the big screen was not a smooth one. Following the commercial failure of his debut Bleak Moments, he devoted his energies to television, making his name through the likes of Nuts in May and Abigail's Party. It was because the latter production was so chaotic that Leigh ultimately transferred to film; Alison Steadman's pregnancy and the sub-standard production values permanently soured his relationship with the BBC.High Hopes could be considered Leigh's first proper feature film. It came after a long period of absence brought on by the death of his father in 1985, a lengthy teaching commitment in Australia, and the cancellation of his project 'Rhubarb' in 1986. Nestled in High Hopes are all the ingredients that Leigh would eventually distil into his finest works; the bittersweet sense of humour, the making and breaking of family bonds, and the unmistakable sense of truth in every situation. But unlike his TV work or the likes of Secrets and Lies, time has not been entirely kind, leaving us with a funny and moving, but often irritating drama.In the composition of its characters, High Hopes is on one level a Marxist analysis of 1980s Britain. The relationships between the three couples, two of whom are related, show the development of the original class divisions and how these have become blurred and compromised by the policies of the Thatcher government. The struggles between the various family members are political on both a macro- and a micro-level, with the arguments about money being as much about rivalling philosophies as standards of living.The upper-class couple, played by Lesley Manville and David Bamber, are a product of 'good breeding stock' and public school educations. They take advantage of the current system without feeling the need to fundamentally alter their lifestyle - in this case, by buying up a council house to use as a city base. They live oblivious to the day-to-day money worries of people worse off or older than them, and are suspicious of anyone not in their position.The middle couple, played by Philip Jackson and Heather Tobias, have their roots in the old working-class but have used their new-found wealth to leave their roots behind. They are the newly-formed middle class, who show off their wealth, spoil themselves and kick back on other people's labour. In their minds, they are entrepreneurs; to the existing working class, they are traitors.The working-class couple, played by Philip Davis and Ruth Sheen, are torn over what the future holds. Both dream of a better of life, but while Shirley (Sheen) wants to make the best of what they have, Cyril (Davis) wants the world to be perfect first. Cyril is suspicious of wealth and people with airs, and dismisses the idea of having children by saying the world is overpopulated as it is. Shirley's elderly mother (Edna Doré) is caught up in all this: life is passing her by, and she is on the wrong side both through her choosing (voting Tory) and not so (getting older).The class divide between the characters is conveyed in the aesthetic of Leigh's film. The score, provided by long-time collaborator Andrew Dickson, is a recurring marriage of elegant, classy cellos with brash mouth organ, as though a skiffle band were going head to head with a symphony orchestra. Roger Pratt, who shot Leigh's Meantime and Handmade's Mona Lisa, shoots London with an understated, almost documentarian feel which captures the run-down, the glitzy and the trashy in equal measure. The final shot on the rooftop is a case of perfect counterpointing; Shirley and the family look over the state-owned railway lines with the privatised BT Tower in the background.In Leigh's own words, High Hopes is about the difficulty of being a socialist. In one of the film's central scenes, Cyril has an argument with a young idealist about how the revolution will happen. The conversation goes round in circles as the various means of action are discussed, until the only options are talking in meetings without changing anything, or sitting on one's backside. There is discussion as to whether inaction or inertia is a legitimate form of protest, and whether having a job of any kind makes you a capitalist. Both characters are caught up in knots of hypocrisy or contradiction: Cyril wants the world to be perfect before anything else can happen, but Marxism is based upon achieving deep change to achieve a perfect world.Anyone reading this dissection of High Hopes' politics might conclude that the film is a very dry affair. But while its discussion of politics is candid, the film is not structured like a lecture with no way in for those who didn't read politics or philosophy at university. Leigh is very careful not to bring these kinds of conversations in until we have sufficiently bonded with the characters, and even then the introduction is a gradual one. Much of the film is funny in that bittersweet way that has become Leigh's trademark, in which every chuckle has a tinge of sadness or a pang of regret nestled in it.A good example of this, at least tonally, comes in the scene where Cyril and Shirley visit Marx's grave at Highgate Cemetery. The couple stand quietly in front of the bust of Marx, discussing the future with voices laden with regret and sadness. Their sombre, principled nature is contrasted by the arrival of boisterous Japanese tourists behind them, who stop for a brief look and then move on. The characters feel distant from the world around them, socially and economically, but find comfort in each other and their brutally honest sense of humour.As you would expect, the performances in High Hopes are very good across the board. Mike Leigh's unique method of scriptwriting, involving lengthy improvisation for months before a scene is shot, gives the actors room to settle into and become their characters. Davis and Sheen are especially convincing, anchoring the film with understated and complex turns which tread the line between empathy and sympathy near-perfectly.But while the performances may be good, the characterisation often isn't. While we always believe that the actors playing the role are that role, the roles in question are frequently caricatured. Leigh's style has often had a cartoonish quality, but here, as in Happy-Go-Lucky, it is played to such an extent that it compromises the overall integrity of the story. The upper-class couple are frequently toe-curling: the whole "Mr. Sausage" scene is terrible, and the clichéd conversations about opera wouldn't have cut the mustard in a bad episode of Rumpole of the Bailey. Heather Tobias' yuppie wife may be intentionally annoying, but it's overplayed to such an extent that we begin to question why we care about her so much.Leigh has always been a political filmmaker, and in some cases his films will alienate those whose political beliefs are not broadly speaking along the same lines. In High Hopes this is to some extent inevitable, because Marx and socialism are discussed so upfront that many will turn their noses up from the word go. But even with this caveat, he doesn't manage to paint an entirely balanced picture, retaining some kind of romantic fondness for Cyril's beliefs even after they have been deconstructed. Leigh's later works, like Topsy-Turvy, demonstrated the practical value of socialist beliefs in a more subtle and less compromising way. On this occasion, the film is let down by painting too broadly, and leaving the audience with an ambiguous but unsatisfying ending.High Hopes finds Mike Leigh feeling his way into a new medium and generally pulling it off. It hasn't dated anything like as well as his later works, and its political and character composition will put a lot of people off. But for those that remain, Leigh's talent as a writer and director are plain for all to see, creating a memorable experience even when the narrative begins to let the characters down. In the end it's an interesting work which contains both its fair share of flaws and a lot of future promise.

Verdict: A hopeful taste of things to come