Reviews

High Hopes

Leigh takes on ordinary and infuses blinding colour, broad comedy, crude monikers and flamboyant performances.


High Hopes

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Heather Tobias, Edna Doré, Philip Jackson, Lesley Manville, David Bamber
Distributor: BFS
Rated: not rated
Year: 1988
US DVD release date: 2009-06-23

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.