After being amazed by Another Year I embarked on seeing (and reseeing) the rest of his films and the last couple of days had me entranced by Nuts in May (1976) and All or Nothing (2002).
The first is a made for TV BBC production and is quite the mundane affair where a couple takes a camping holiday. He’s a pompous ass and we don’t quite understand what she is doing with him except that probably no one else would be happily playing with her on their folky guitar and banjo songs. They run across an odd assortment of types on the campsite and amidst the interactions we get this absurdly human document.
Because the subject is camping it hasn’t dated as much as a urban film from the time might. And though its not that grand in its reach it does still hold attention.
On the other hand All or Nothing is right up there with Another Year. Like a few other directors, Leigh seems to have a few people he likes to keep working with and in this we have Leslie Manville and Ruth Sheen who were also in Another Year. And what I am starting to get about British acting craft is that it appears leaps and bounds beyond American “great” acting. I’ve noticed a very high standard in the thrillers such as MI5 as well. What it seems is that these people are really able to disappear into the character and the characters from film to film are so different and despite minimal make up changes, you hardly recognize them from one film to the next. That’s acting!
I can think of very few American top rank actors who are quite so self effacing. Part of this is the narrative style where the British (and I am talking about art films here rather than genre) is much more realistic and the American seems to occupy a fantasy land even when supposedly realistic in that the dialogue is too smart and fast for real life. Too much is too well expressed. In Leigh’s films what is not said is just as important as what is, and the people are just as smart or dumb as you would think they would be.
And there is something so dynamic about watching these stories play out amongst a mostly downtrodden bunch. All those emotions that everyone feels are even more dramatic when you don’t have the distractions of nice things. Food is crap, most of life really is crap in these films, so the emotions are even more transcendental than they otherwise would be.
All I know is that these films shake you to your core. For instance I just watched the last of the Tattoo trilogy and though I enjoyed it, its essentially done and over. The Mike Leigh films stay with you. You keep thinking about them and despite (or because of) each of them having really unbearable scenes you cannot take your eyes off the screen. They fall so far outside the usual Hollywood mold that the trailers don’t quite work; the form just cannot deliver the right message about how rich these films really are.
All or Nothing is about working class people (some of them quite messed up) just getting by. How do you make that sound worth sticking around for?
But it is.