Mike Leigh

By Meyer, Andrea | Journal of Film and Video, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Mike Leigh


Meyer, Andrea, Journal of Film and Video


MIKE LEIGH Sean O'Sullivan. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011, 192 pp.

"We need to separate the romance from the result," Sean O'Sullivan says in his careful, convincing new book about the English director Mike Leigh. "It is time that we stopped thinking of Mike Leigh as a shaman and started thinking of him as a filmmaker" (2). Mike Leigh is widely considered a director of realistic films, one who enters the lives of ordinary British folks and, as if by magic, unearths unexpected complexity and richness there. Small, evocative slices of life, his films are often either revered for their insight and authenticity or criticized for their refusal to break from the confines of London living rooms and pubs. O'Sullivan notes that in a review of Leigh's film Vera Drake (2004), the New Yorker critic David Denby said, "In its limited way, perfect"-a common reaction to Leigh's work.

In Mike Leigh (included in the University of Illinois Press's Contemporary Film Directors series), O'Sullivan announces his intention to reclaim Leigh "as a practicing theorist-a filmmaker deeply invested in cinema's formal, conceptual, and narrative dimensions" (1). More than "an unassuming crafter of little mov- ies" (1), Leigh is, O'Sullivan argues, an artist who puts an extraordinary amount of thought into every aspect of the filmmaking process, creating works of great depth that depart radi- cally from reality.

The first and largest section of O'Sullivan's book, "The Nature of Contrivance," borrows its title from Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy (1999). In the film, the composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Cor- duner) has told his collaborator, the playwright W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), that he would like to take a break from their work together to write a grand opera, as opposed to the "trivial souf- flés" Gilbert tends to write, stories that Sullivan says often rely on such "contrived devices" as magical potions. Gilbert replies, "Every theatrical performance is a contrivance, by its very nature."

Certainly, contrivance is an element of all film, but this fact is often overlooked-or un- duly criticized-in Leigh's work. The director famously spends months improvising with his cast to develop the characters they will play and the narrative that will enfold them. Perhaps it is the organic nature of this collaborative process that gives some people the impres- sion that his films are sprung full-blown from the earth-or at least the minds and bodies of the director and his cast-rather than crafted. But Leigh's films are made like any other. Every dreary kitchen in which a woman sits frown- ing into her cup of tea has a barrage of lights rigged to its ceiling, a camera rolling, a boom overhead, a video monitor in the corner, and a director of photography, gaffer, sound guy, makeup artist, and dolly grip, plus an army of electricians and production assistants ready to make noise as soon as the director calls, "Cut!"

Likewise, like any director, Leigh ma- nipulates narrative elements to suit the story, heightening tension and building suspense and emotional punch for the audience's sat- isfaction-for example, in having the police knock at Vera Drake's door to question her about a near-fatal abortion she performed at the precise moment that she's hosting a party to celebrate her daughter's engagement. Al- though we forgive this type of dramatic license in movies all the time, critics pounce when it occurs in a Mike Leigh film perhaps because his films are supposed to be just like life. This, O'Sullivan argues, is not fair. "We need to recover words like 'contrivance,' 'artifice,' and 'design' in order to see and hear what Leigh offers to be seen and heard," O'Sullivan says. "We need to realign Leigh with Gilbert, the ar- tificer, the careful shaper of language, actions, and images" (10-11).

In a section titled "How to Watch a Mike Leigh Movie," O'Sullivan outlines the narrative and stylistic elements that mark Leigh's work. …

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