Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
United Kingdom, 1988. British Screen Productions, Channel Four Films, Portman Productions. Screenplay by Mike Leigh. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Produced by Simon Channing Williams, Victor Glynn. Music by Andrew Dickson. Production Design by Diana Charnley. Costume Design by Lindy Hemming. Film Editing by Jon Gregory. Independent Spirit Awards 1989.
The success of this sometimes outrageous comedy by Mike Leigh was a major stepping stone to the fame of the award-winning projects (Naked, Secrets and Lies) to follow. His class-conscious investigation of life under Thatcher focuses on three couples: Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis are proud of their socialist beliefs when confronted by the snobbery of others, but internally are threatened by her desire to have a baby and his feeling that a world that has failed Marx’s dream isn’t worth bringing a child into. Davis’ sister, Heather Tobias, has married a successful merchant and lives the life of new-money indulgence, constantly buying things and obsessed with showing off what she has purchased, her home a museum of gaudy conspicuous consumption. The only connection between these siblings is their aging mother, played with deadpan perfection by Edna Doré, who lives in a council townhouse next door to a bourgeois couple (Lesley Manville, David Bamber) who have purchased their property and represent the neighbourhood’s impending gentrification. When Dore accidentally locks herself out of her house, it makes for an uncomfortable day of Manville snobbishly enduring her in her kitchen while waiting for her children to come help her, a centerpiece scene in which Leigh puts all these characters together in one situation. When Valerie tries to show her own value by throwing her mother a surprise birthday party, it brings the siblings to the point of really making a decision about where they go next as a family. As always, Leigh manages to make the drab considerations of every day life fascinating and elicits unforgettable performances from his actors, but it is disappointing that his criticism about the evils of trickle-down economics and people’s fantasies about middle-class respectability take the form of such awkward caricatures; at some point Tobias’s chatter gets repetitive and annoying, while Manville and Bamber employing overly clipped, posh accents feels like something out of Mapp & Lucia. If it’s the case that Leigh meant to present them as farce, then these characters can be considered a successful venture, but it’s daring of him to put such extreme characterizations in the same boat as the first couple’s practical good sense and Dore’s dark misery, representing as she does the failure of the kitchen sink melodramas of yesteryear to come to turn out to her benefit.