When Mike Leigh assembled one of his stellar ensemble casts to make High Hopes, the 80s were nearly done. Nearly but not quite. And their impact is a major theme throughout this muffled madcap domestic melee.
As in most Leigh ventures, we're unceremoniously dropped into the world of a family, in this case, the Benders. Cyril Bender (Phil Davis) and his girlfriend Shirley (Ruth Sheen) live in comfortable near-squalor in a tiny dark apartment full of Ruth's cacti and Cyril's political posters. The Iron Lady Maggie Thatcher makes a cameo here on their wall. Their largest, pointiest cactus is named after Thatcher for being such a "pain in the ass."
This is a film of contrasts and comparisons. Cyril is a motorcycle messenger, working alongside yuppie office drones, of which the 80s bred many. Shirley is a gardener, planting trees in small city parks and medians. Cyril's mum lives in a former council flat in a neighborhood now gentrified by yuppie scum, who'll we'll meet soon enough. Can you guess which townhouse belongs to Mrs. Bender? Leigh has always had a great eye for art direction to depict class and economic malaise.
Cyril's God-awful sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her misogynist husband Martin (Philip Jackson) are junk-bond nouveau-riche personified. Martin sells used cars and openly hates his wife. Valerie is desperate for his sexual attentions, but she'll just as energetically chases down material goods and even people in a doomed quest for status. These are such dreadful comedic characters and you might be tempted to disbelieve that such people could possibly exist, but take a look at the current U.S. President, who made his (mis)fortunes in the 80s. Martin could easily be a stand-in for the boorish fame-monger now occupying the White House.
Let's visit Valerie's attempt at a well-appointed home. With only the slightest exaggeration, we get a sense of 1980s wealth-obsessed tacky decor in two shots.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Bender's next-door neighbor, Madame yuppie-scum Laetitia (the always-great Leigh-stalwart Lesley Manville) is so very annoyed that her grubby little neighbor has locked herself out of her house.
Whenever I've imitated snobby British caricatures, I've sounded exactly like Laetia. I just never knew it until I saw this film. Once again, Leigh avoids tipping over into caricature entirely by simply being observant and honest of a certain type of upper-class sensibility of the time.
Mrs. Bender as seen from high above Laetia's steps. Mrs. Bender is losing her memory and her keys. Laetia would very much like her to go away and use a payphone to call a family member for help. I guess flipping a dime down the stairs would have devolved into caricature.
Back at Valerie's we're treated to her afternoon home-gym reverie.
I'm just including these for the 80s set design. Tops.
People really did dress like this to exercise. I'm sorry to say it was a fad.
Valerie could barely be bothered with her mum's predicament. She calls on Cyril, temporarily trapped within the uniformed office world, to fetch Mrs. Bender.
Laetia's husband Rupert (David Bambert), dripping with pretension, discusses oyster and steak lunches while treating Mrs. Bender like a pesky housefly that will hopefully let itself out the window sometime soon.
This would all be a real unbearable pit of (satirical) human waste-matter if it wasn't for Cyril and Shirley's playful relationship. They are in tune to leftist politics, the environment, and social concerns. When Wayne (Jason Watkins), a wayward lost soul with a mental disability wanders into their orbit, he at times subtly stands in for the child Shirley would like to have.
Cyril is not on board with child-rearing, citing excuses that many laid-back politicos over the ages have used: too many people on the planet, not enough resources, terrible world to bring new life into. The truth is he'd rather smoke pot and listen to Chuck Berry than deal with it.
The humanity of actress Ruth Sheen is a quiet delight. Her face projecting so many emotions within the span of moments.
Karl Marx's massive stone head makes its film debut as Cyril ponders how to do something of value in the world, when one feels inconsequential.
Hint: maybe don't smoke so much pot all the time.
One of Leigh's jittery ladies (a character trait featured in several of his films), Suzi (Judith Scott), visits their apartment, furthering the conversation of how to make positive change in a world run by wealthy power-hungry assholes. Her answer: go to meetings. Have discussions. Cyril scoffs, all sunk into his chair.
A surprise birthday party for Mrs. Bender at Valerie's single-family dwelling cannot bode well.
And it doesn't. Note the familiar hat. Costume designs by the sharp-eyed Lindy Hemming.
More of Valerie's house of misery (and you may feel for her if you watch her closely, as Leigh wants us to).
Leigh pioneered much of our current comedy of awkward social gatherings and uncomfortable embarrassment within misaligned pairings and groups.
In Leigh's industrialized modern world, grand gestures are most likely doomed and we can only hope for moments of humorous, affectionate connection between like-minded souls for any personal happiness. Not everyone has their thoughtful eyes on humanity within the modern world like Mike Leigh, but if you do, he's your cinematic man.