Academic journal article Film Criticism

Mike Leigh's High Hopes: Troubling Home in Thatcher's Britain

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Mike Leigh's High Hopes: Troubling Home in Thatcher's Britain

Article excerpt

Much of English filmmaker Mike Leigh's work between the late 1970s and early 1990s reflects a passionate critique of the economic and social policies of Thatcherism, addressing a British society that had turned its back on the political and social consensus of the previous forty years. Nowhere is this critique more poignantly nuanced than in 1988's High Hopes, in which, in alternately subtle and broadly satirical terms, Leigh examines the state of the family in Thatcherite London. Marking Leigh's return to theatrical features after 18 years of creating movies for television, High Hopes became a benchmark film for the director, earning him wider international attention and acclaim. Significantly, it has remained a litmus test to which many commentators return when attempting to assess Leigh's own controversial position as a social and political critic. (1) This paper returns to High Hopes in an attempt to complicate previous critical responses and interrogate some of the categories that the film at times appears to take for granted. Thematically, High Hopes offers a conflicted critique of Thatcherite dogma, but it is precisely this ambivalence that ensures the film's continued relevance. Vacillating between contempt and complicity in its critique of Thatcherite principles, High Hopes ultimately seeks resolution in uncertainty, a contradiction finally reflected in the cinematic apparatus itself, in the power of the camera simultaneously to reify the "real" and to insist on its artificiality.

Since its release, critics and audiences have responded enthusiastically to the film's humane and humanist response to Thatcherite greed and selfishness and to its courageous attempt to represent, in the figures of the film's protagonists Cyril and Shirley, "kinds of goodness and basic decency in action" (Watson 95). (2) Yet what is particularly compelling about Leigh's critique is the extent to which the film reveals the ambivalences and ambiguities inherent in any attempt to criticize Thatcher's political and social agenda. "[B]y 1987," Leigh has said, "when High Hopes was in development, we were eight years into Thatcherism, I just felt that I wanted to express the frustration and confusion that a lot of ordinary socialists like myself were feeling" (Fuller xx). Confusion and frustration in this case produce a productively equivocal politics, a refusal to see the world from any comfortably complacent position. As Sterritt argues, "[Leigh's] works have always gone against the grain of mainstream assumptions, offering an implicit challenge to the self-satisfied set of materialist, consumerist attitudes that Leigh has long feared and loathed in Western culture" (Sterritt 2004 np). It is precisely the "implicitness" of this challenge that distances Leigh from other more strident critics of Thatcherism such as Derek Jarman or Ken Loach. Though Leigh's leftist politics undoubtedly stand in stark contrast to the market-driven late-capitalist ideology of Thatcherism, High Hopes illustrates the folly of easy assumptions about right or left political practices and complicates strict categorizations of private and public space. "It's terribly important there are filmmakers," Leigh has said, "whose films have very direct, specific, political objectives, and it's terribly important that those films work and cause changes to happen ... but I don't make films of that kind ... I make films where l don't leave you clearly able to conclude what I'm asking you to think or feel. I make films that ask a great number of questions but ... don't come up with too many answers" (qtd. in Sterritt 2006, 320). Rather than view High Hopes as either an unequivocal anti-Thatcher polemic (3) or an unwitting accomplice in the Thatcherite agenda, (4) or take its point as "not primarily political" at all (Jones 35), this paper examines how Leigh's film situates itself uncertainly within Thatcherite discursive practices, at times openly contesting these, at others revealing an unexpected affinity with them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.