High Hopes, Mike Leigh’s second feature, is a comic examination of the class divide in Thatcher’s England. Set primarily in and around the Kings Cross area of North London, it benefits from Leigh’s trademark flair with performers and knack for capturing on celluloid not merely a surface impression of the real, but what lies beneath.
In High Hopes Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen) live a modest but cheery existence, their relationship sustained by shared humour and tactility. However, friction comes with Shirley’s increasing eagerness to start a family.
Cyril, a staunch but disenchanted Marxist, has been worn down by his impotent existence in a country crushed under the callous hand of Conservative rule, and consequently has reservations about fathering a child, angrily stating, “No-one gives a shit the sort of world the kids are being born into.” To his great frustration, his disillusion is eroding his happiness and he fears he is becoming bitter.
He derides Shirley’s dream of a family-orientated life and feels unease at the idea of personal contentment amidst wider societal injustice. He comments sadly, “I want everyone to have enough to eat… places to live, jobs.” The void where the child should be is fleetingly filled by the hapless Wayne (Jason Watkins).
At first a seemingly incidental inclusion, Wayne is an affable stray; found dimwittedly ambling about the big city. Sent by his mother to live with his sister, clutching a scrap of paper bearing an incomplete address, his arrival brings out a kindness in cynical Cyril. Wayne is as softheaded and wide-eyed as a newborn, and nearly as daft; dressed oddly in a sheepskin jacket, tie, his feet ablaze in garish branded trainers.
They allow him to stay for a night in their spare room, tuck him up parentally, setting down his stereo by his side. He prompts Shirley to say, quite sincerely, “I hope I don’t have a kid that’s a bit thick.”
Rendered with equal sensitivity is the predicament of Cyril’s elderly mother, referred to simply as Mrs. Bender (Edna Doré). Her withdrawal from society is illustrated by her heavily-etched, forlorn expression and remarkable stillness amidst the chatter. Her council house is a smudge of muddy grey stranded in the middle of a row of sunny yellow properties which have been sold off to wealthy private buyers; here represented by her ludicrous neighbours the Boothe-Brains.
Rather than seeming defiantly dingy, there is a real poignancy to her home’s state of relative disrepair, as it mirrors Mrs Bender’s own detachment and is in fact an extension of her predicament. It too is of a bygone age, neglected, shabbier, sadder than those that surround it.
As well as subtlety, Leigh gives us plenty of his trademark lunacy. A deft satirist, he reserves his most vitriolic parody for Mrs. Bender’s daughter and son-in-law, the aspirational Valerie and Martin Burke (Heather Tobias and Philip Jackson). Although Mrs. Bender’s toffy-nosed neighbours are monsters of insensitivity and two dimensional imbeciles, they have a blissful and passionate, if slightly revolting, marriage; and they are undoubtedly comfortable in their own skin.
With the aptly named Burkes he suggests that to aspire, to reject your place and reach greedily upward, is poisonous. Martin is depicted as a flagrant serial adulterer, a greedy, selfish sleazebag whose profane reaction to Shirley’s emphatic rejection of his advances is, “Women, all the bleeding same — fucking losers.” Valerie is noisily unhappy, wildly bi-polar in her mood swings and hopelessly sexually frustrated.
In his contemporary social realist dramas, Leigh deals in societal and familial issues in a tough, credible fashion; however his films share an undeniable exuberance, enough to elevate them assuredly to big screen dramatics, with cinematic compositions and characterisations. These remarkable characters are designed to be writ large. He is looking at the world through a microscope, and accordingly the characters appear larger than life.
Despite an oft vocalised commitment to verisimilitude, in Leigh’s hands the ordinary is never less than extraordinary. Not content to wallow in misery or emulate the more starkly earnest approach of his close contemporary — the equally wonderful Ken Loach — Leigh takes on the routine stories of the ordinary or disaffected and mischievously infuses blinding colour, broad comedy, crude monikers and flamboyant (largely improvised) performances.
Across much of his work he has developed a consistent style, visible in the performances of many of his actors who often veer stylistically away from their mundane surroundings. Despite his realist concerns he is not afraid to encourage certain actors into exaggerated performances, which can sometimes come across as maniacal caricature.
He revels in how casually normalcy can sit alongside stark absurdity: to Leigh, modern life can be nonsense. To this end he paints some characters in broad strokes, some more carefully and delicately; like Shirley, Cyril and Mrs Bender who are painstakingly finely drawn.
In High Hopes Leigh gives us an England of contradiction and eccentricity: of peering-through-the-letterbox envy; where to some brass bananas are considered the height of sophistication; where status is proportionate to the height of your hat; and where Cyril riles about “working class Tories stabbing themselves in the back”.
Unfortunately the latter gripe still resonates in present day England, where the reaction by many to an economic crisis brought on by greed and reckless ambition has been to turn, once again, like lambs, to the bloodthirsty right.
High Hopes is as much about London as it is about the characters themselves. This is never more explicitly rendered than in the final sequence, where Cyril and Shirley encourage Mrs. Bender to consider the view from the roof of their block; proudly showing her the landmarks, her area, the station where her husband used to work. She remarks, “It’s the top of the world”.
In this film Leigh shows us how London is not just a city of unique racial integration but one — in a witty, wonderfully clumsy quirk of design — where the rich and the poor live side by side as a matter of course. High Hopes is a triumphant evocation of confusions relating to class identity; and that Leigh is engaged with these issues is in no doubt.
The central trio of performers, Davis, Sheen and Doré are superb. Although its subtleties don’t always sit easily alongside its more broad comedy, it is an engrossing, thoughtful and thoroughly amusing film.
Editor’s Note: our reviewer was sent a screener with no extras, so she is unable to provide information about extras that accompany this DVD.