Mike Leigh in Ruins

Blogpost, British cinema, London Film Festival 2010, Uncategorized

This blog is not going to say Mike Leigh is really in ruins. With his new film, Another Year (UK, 2010), Mike Leigh proves that he is still on good form. But the idea is also to compare this new film at least in part to Robinson in Ruins (UK, 2010), the new documentary from Patrick Keiller, and which I saw at the 2010 London Film Festival.

For both films are concerned with the decay of a certain mode of British existence and both films are concerned with history.

Condescending towards his characters. The characters are stereotypes. Bittersweet. These are the stock opinions and phrases that are wheeled out to discuss the work of Mike Leigh. All hold true here, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Another Year centres around the Hepple family, which consists of Tom (Jim Broadbent), Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a couple in late middle-age, and Joe (Oliver Maltman), their 30-year old son. Tom is a geologist; Gerri is a counsellor; Joe is, from what I can tell, a barrister. They are all, after a certain fashion, happy go lucky, in that they all make light and learn to find the positive side of the tribulations and slings that life puts in their fortunate way.

They have a lovely house, a back garden, and an allotment somewhere in London (not specified, unless I missed it). They also have a small group of friends that includes:

– Mary (Lesley Manville), who is perhaps in her late forties, who is single, and who desperately wants to find a man, preferably a young man, perhaps even Joe;
– Ken (Peter Wight), who is an old university friend of Tom and Gerri, who is similarly single and in need of love, and who lives in Hull;
– Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s brother, who towards the end of the film becomes a widower, and who moves down to stay from Derby with Tom and Gerri.

There are other friends – but these are the main ones.

Mary and Ken in particular drink like fishes. In fact, each sequence in the film is more or less divided into Tom and Gerri receiving house guests, notably Mary and Ken, and watching them get pissed as a way to cope with their nervousness and with their solitude. Tom and Gerri do drink, but not like these people.

Mary and Ken come in for the worst treatment. Ken is a fat lad who is annoyed with the fact that ‘his’ pubs in Hull are now populated by young lads – particularly graduates (Ken graduated from Manchester with Tom and Gerri) – who make a lot of noise. In one particular scene, he drinks about four large glasses of red wine in about three minutes while delivering a rant with his mouth full of food about the above decline in his social life: the UK does not want old people to be seen or heard.

As he scoffs more food (despite having a seemingly empty plate) and drinks more wine, we cut to shots of Gerri in particular looking down at his glass of booze, which he then slugs in an oblivious fashion – as if his behaviour were beyond his control/he was beyond the censure of others.

Similarly, Mary gets pissed round at Tom and Gerri’s place, she seeks to flirt with Joe (and Tom on occasion), and she expresses repeatedly her angst and nervousness at being alone in the world. Men have treated her poorly, while there is also a sense that she ‘wasted’ a good chunk of her life working in bars in Mallorca and Corfu (perhaps chasing dreams that Shirley Valentine might also have chased), and, perhaps, that she has addled her brain from smoking a lot of pot, also in her youth.

Booze features prominently in the film: Tom, Gerri, Joe and Ronnie drink it more or less constantly, but Ken and Mary drink it most of all, since they drink it copiously and constantly. Furthermore, Tom and Gerri repeatedly hint at both of their friends that they should stop drinking or cut down – though never outright do they say it.

Instead, the film is indeed full of furtive glances at the glasses of these characters as they become drained. And slowly it begins to emerge that Tom and Gerri do actually judge their friends. Not obviously, but implicitly.

This is made most clear through the role that their house plays in the film. Aside from a few brief forays on to the road (with Mary, who has a new car; with the Hepples as they travel to the funeral of Ronnie’s wife; a golf course; opening shots of everyone at work), the house and Tom and Gerri’s allotment are the only settings for this film. Coming to stay with the Hepples is a real treat for Ken and Mary – as it is for Ronnie at the end of the film.

In fact, Ronnie’s Derby home is depicted as about as grim a 1950s north Midlands house as you could wish for: VCR stacked on top of old television about four foot from the settee, with an unwelcoming grey-green wallpaper, cramped hallway and staircase, tiny kitchen for one. “This place has not changed,” says Tom, or words to that effect when arrives at his brother’s house.

The implication being that he has left and never really bothered to return to Derby, since he has, unlike Jenny from An Education (Lone Scherfig, UK, 2009), had an academic education, and he has used this to escape from the grim north and down to the beautiful south.

Never would the Hepples entertain the idea of staying with Ronnie, nor even of helping him out from a distance. The only way to make Ronnie’s life better is to take him into their homely pad where he can rehabilitate/come to terms with his grief.

Similarly, although Mary and Ken both describe their pads, we never to get to see them; why would we want to? They don’t want to be at home; they’d rather be chez Hepple, too. And so the assumed betterness/superiority of the Hepple household is confirmed in the mise-en-scène of the film, which does not allow us into the homes of the other characters.

With the ‘betterness’ of their home comes a sense of betterness more generally. Joe reveals this early on: in his job, he represents an old man, Mr Gupta (Badi Uzzaman), who has been ill and who now faces repossession if the court does not find that he has not been paying his bills due to the enforced absence that his illness provoked. “Hmmm, lovely,” says Joe to Gupta and his young lady friend (Meneka Das), when she explains to him that they own a restaurant. Joe’s tone is one of condescension and is met with awkwardness by Gupta and the friend.

As if the aspiration of owning a restaurant were a bad one – although Mike Leigh did make much of a fool out of Aubrey (Timothy Spall) in Life is Sweet (UK, 1990), who opened and aspired to make a success of the Regret Rien.

Where Aubrey does come to regret his restaurant, though, it would seem as though Tom and Gerri here have little to regret – while Mary and Ken’s lives are full of nothing but. And because they have nothing to regret, because everyone wants to come round their house, they can look upon others not with disdain per se, but with a hidden and never-to-be-expressed self-congratulatory sense of self that is in fact fundamentally disinterested in other people as, precisely, people.

More on this: Tom has evidently not been to Derby for a long time – and so is obviously not particularly bothered to keep in touch with Ronnie. However, he then chides Ronnie’s son, Carl (Martin Savage) for not being involved in family life with father Ronnie and his late mother, for not being a good son and staying in touch with his parents. Carl is a bad son, while Tom is a good brother – when he wants to be. Unspoken/unseen in the film are presumably all of the times that led to Tom and Ronnie being such different, perhaps even opposite, people, despite being from the same family.

Family is everything here, as Gerri says to Mary at one point – again provided that that family is nice and cosy – and when everything is nice and cosy it is easy to sermonise to others about how badly they lead their lives.

Gerri’s turn: one of the opening scenes of the film shows Gerri talking to Janet, a woman who is sleepless and who is depressed, who gives her life a 1 out of 10, and who would not change anything but everything about it if she could. Janet does not want treatment, really, from Gerri, but she has to go if she wants her sleeping pills.

That said, while Janet may ostensibly be set up as a key figure (not least because she is played by Imelda Staunton), she in fact disappears from these opening moments in the film and never surfaces again. As she expresses resistance to Gerri’s desire to ‘help’ her, Gerri ends up saying that only Janet can decide whether to come to therapy or not – the implication being that Gerri feels that only therapy can help Janet, and that it is Janet’s fault if she does not want to help herself.

Loaded into this, if it is accepted as what is going on in the film, is a deep-seated self-righteousness that could never even be pointed out to the character were they alive to hear it, because even if they did hear it, immediately it would be denied, since every safety mechanism has been created to disengage as and when any trouble comes along and to blot out of her life anything that does not conform to expectations.

Take Gerri’s rejection of Mary. Mary acts like a silly heartbroken girl when finally she meets Katie (Karina Fernandez), Joe’s girlfriend, who also works in medical care (looking after old people, no less). However, while Mary is acting like a heartbroken 12-year old, it is not entirely her fault. However manic and imbalanced she is as a character/person (and the transparent nature of Mary’s character, in that she can do nothing to hide her desperation, might lead some to accuse Mary in particular of being a character condescended to, deprived of any real soul or depth, and played as a stereotype by Manville), it is not as if this car crash had not been anticipated. Joe flirts something rotten with Mary – and in front of his parents. He gets Mary to drink-drive him to Kings Cross, before dumping her with Ken, who is also cadging a lift to his train back to Hull. And he stares relentlessly at her to gauge her reaction to Katie when they are introduced. Something very cruel is going on here, principally through Joe, but with the whole family’s complicity, too. And having set a trap that someone like Mary would never be able to avoid, Gerri can soundly reject Mary, as can Tom and the others. And hereafter the knives come out: even though Mary has already been described as ‘special’ by Joe to Katie just prior to their first encounter, come their second one – months later – Katie is happy to make unpleasant gestures about Mary when she cannot see them.

Don’t get me wrong; Katie can indeed feel irked by Mary’s behaviour. She least of anyone could have anticipated how she would act upon discovering Joe to be in a relationship. But she quickly gets in on the game that sees the Hepples play the welcoming and warm-hearted family as long as it is on their terms and as long as no one steps on their toes – and quickly they will find a ruse not only to eject people from that place when they want to, but also in such a way that it is the fault of the other person and they can feel good about themselves. Classic passive-aggressives – as Gerri’s treatment of Janet and as her judging eyes on Ken and Mary’s wine glasses also show.

The question becomes: does the film share in this ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour? Sort of. Carl is dismissed as a thug (perhaps it is relevant that he has moved further north than Derby, to Yorkshire, where it is even more grim than down in lov-er-ley Lahndahn). And Ken is a bore.

Given that the scene featuring Ken drinking an amazing amount in such a short space of time, and given that while doing this he is permanently chewing on food that is not on or from his plate (or so it would seem), Another Year seems to want to make an eating and drinking spectacle of Ken – and that rather than portray him realistically, we have instead a stylised rendering of gluttonous behaviour, masquerading as realism, as is Mike Leigh’s way. Is this Gerri’s point of view, then? Is the porcine Ken that we see in fact the version of Ken that Gerri is looking at and judging? Or does the film itself wish to say that Ken actually is this bacchanalean, and that we are therefore not given Gerri’s point of view in a calculated and signalled manner, but instead are sutured into her point of view, which is also the view of the film itself? That is, does the film endorse Gerri and, by extension, the rest of her family, or does it implicitly critique them?

To be honest, on this score I am not sure. Mary is treated like a fool, but this is okay because she acts like a fool. She buys a new car in this film, making her something of a grown-up version of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (UK, 2008), Mike Leigh’s last sortie. In that film, Poppy learns to drive with Scott (Eddie Marsan), only to find that he is psychotic, and here Mary gets behind the wheel only to be led on in the car by Joe, groped by Ken and ripped off by the guys that sold the motor to her, since constantly it breaks down – although it is also her fault because she drives and parks badly (as well as while under the influence).

Not only might we implicitly find a message that the freedom of movement engendered by driving is ‘not for women’ (something that arguably continues with Sally Hawkins into Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, UK, 2010)), but also that where Poppy had aspirations to drive but learns to be happy with what she has, a miserable old wreck is where she might end up if she continues on. Except Poppy, being a teacher, had perhaps more of the Gerri than the Mary in her. So perhaps she will be fine. Maybe not an older version, then, but Mary is somehow Poppy gone wrong.

The film ends with Mary being allowed (as opposed to being invited) to sit again around the Hepple table as Tom, Gerri, Katie and Joe talk about all of the travelling that they have done and will do. Tom used to work in Australia and he and Gerri took seven months to travel back. It may not be the same thing, but Joe and Katie are going to Paris for the weekend (and we know that Joe has gone for the weekend to Dublin on a stag, too). Mary and Ronnie, meanwhile, sit silent, at the table but not party to the conversation. Mary, we know, had to choose between a holiday and her car; having chosen the car, it then broke down on the one time that she wanted to go on holiday – to Brighton – and in fact ended up back at the place where she grew up, Crawley. Ronnie, we suspect, has not left Derby for years.

It is not so much that there are generations of people who now have access to cheap travel via low-cost airlines and the like (although this may be true). It is more that the educated classes of any/every age get to travel and enjoy the world – and to be happy – while the non-educated, including Ronnie and Mary (who is ashamed of her secretarial qualifications in the face of Katie’s questioning about them), are left behind and can only dream of second hand travelling, of being at the Hepple family’s table, where they can hear talk of such things/avoid having to hear about them by drinking to excess.

Tom, Gerri and Ken were at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968, as we learn from their reminiscences. 1968 was probably not the year I’d have chosen to be at the festival in the first three years of its running, since 1969 was Dylan and The Who, and 1970 was Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Joan Baez and Miles Davis, while 1968 was ‘merely’ Jefferson Airplane and T Rex. But, of course, 1968 is the iconographic year of the youth movement and the Paris ‘revolution.’ It is made relatively clear that Tom et al did not really take part in/love the 1968 festival in the way that many hippies might have done at the time, but at least they were there. But implicit in this might be the notion that whatever 1968 stood for, they have perhaps sold out on it, swapping a wish for equality for condescension, while those who try still to relive their youth (Ken and Mary) are made fools of/are shown as fish out of water.

The older I get, the more I realise that history is important. This is a sentiment expressed by Tom when in bed with Gerri one night. And yet, he seems not to be able to connect with history, in that Tom did not really live 1968 as the myths have it as being lived. Or rather: for Tom, history is best when it is just that – history and subject to amnesia that misremembers one’s part in it. Meanwhile, Ken and Mary who try to keep the past alive, who in effect live ‘historically’ are derided. History is important, but it is Tom and Gerri that forget it, while Ken and Mary seem to want to live it. As such, it seems problematic not that the film explores these issues, but rather that the film wants us to take Tom and Gerri’s side, to ‘suture’ us into their point of view.

As such, the one-sidedness of Ken, Mary and Ronnie (which is not to mention Carl) seems deeply unfair and, indeed, condescending (Leigh as usual). Tom and Gerri are, as their name suggests, the real cartoon characters, while Mary, Ken and Ronnie have real issues to deal with. So closely have the Hepples worn the facade of happiness that they do not know how to get back to really living. The burden of really living is a hard one to bear, and it is easy to criticise a drink-obsessed culture when one disavows one’s roots and participation in it. But living a real life might indeed force one to seek solace in wine and beer. The Hepples have no real problems and so can frown upon drinking – they do not need it, in the same way that Janet does not need the sleeping pills, or so Gerri would have us believe.

And yet, no one perhaps needs drink and pills – and the provision thereof is in some respects therefore the ruin of the nation (whatever that is). But if you can do without drink and pills, then perhaps it is because happiness is, too, a social prosthetic used to hide the emptiness that lurks inside all human souls (?). Happiness is not something that we aspire to; it is something that we use to hide from reality (except that reality itself is vague enough to allow such a condition to be professed and upheld as, precisely, real). Happiness is a technology of the self: it helps us to understand ourselves – it is a tool.

Perhaps the real issue is the notion of selfhood, which could in other circumstances perhaps be called into question, and which perhaps was called into question in 1968. Ken, who, ironically enough, claims to have been born in 1896 – the year of cinema’s birth according to many of the records – also recalls going down the pub in his youth as a collective/group exercise. And he dreams of being part of the pack, or so it seems. And yet he cannot be.

Tom, who never really liked the crowds on the Isle of Wight, was always an individualist – prepared to create a small family because this was the best he could do to compromise between individualism and collective living; and those that really did pursue collective living, which I perhaps misread here as Ken and Mary, are left alone and to fend for themselves, idiots for having dreamt of something different.

Perhaps Another Year does not enact what it depicts. That is, the film does seem non-judgemental towards its characters – and we certainly are with Mary and Ronnie as the film ends and they sit silently as the Hepples and Katie talk off screen of hotels in the Marais. It is not that the film should come out and condemn the Hepples; far from it. Nor should it love Mary and Ken. But by not letting us into the lives of Mary and Ken (because Tom and Gerri are not really interested in doing so – or because the film is not really interested in doing so?), the film does run the risk of the usual Mike Leigh clichés.

That said, perhaps it is precisely for this head-scratching reason (is it the people or the film that finds Mary and Ken one-dimensional?), Another Year is deliciously ambiguous and sees Mike Leigh tread carefully through a Britain in ruins.

Meanwhile, Robinson in Ruins is Patrick Keiller’s long-awaited follow-up to London (UK, 1994) and Robinson in Space (UK, 1997).

In some senses, the film is no disappointment. Although Paul Scofield’s voice over has been replaced by the wry tone of Vanessa Redgrave, and although Robinson is no longer necessarily the character who always accompanies the speaker on his journeys, being instead now someone who comes and goes and who remains somewhat elusive, the film bears many of the traits of its two predecessors.

That is, the film is witty, informative, angry, and beautifully shot. It lingers on minor details of local and British history that most British folk would overlook as they busily travel around paying no attention to the very space through which they are travelling, obsessed instead as they are with the destination. As such, Patrick Keiller aims to take to his viewers the kind of passion about history that does allow us to know who we are and to learn – unlike Tom and Gerri, who seemingly talk a good game.

But much as I enjoyed Robinson in Ruins, I could not help wonder this, which is, unfairly to the film, the only thing I wanted to say about it, and which tenuously is only linked to this blog because of the films’ shared (at least professed) concern with history. And the ‘this’ that I referred to in the previous sentence goes as follows: as we are given yet more information about yet other places and details of history, one comes, or at least I came, to wonder that Robinson… is the first film of the Wikipedia age.

(Forget Facebook for the time being, though I may blog about that film at another time.)

For, hearing more and more details about various phenomena felt like clicking through on Wikipedia in order to achieve similar. I doubt that this would please Keiller at all, since one wonders that he wants precisely to present his films as somehow old fangled, hence the static cameras, the lingering takes of flowers in the wind, and so on. And Wikipedia is about rapid click-throughs (people hate an entry with too much information). So while diametrically opposed, I wondered if Robinson… and Wikipedia are in fact two sides of the same coin. And that may be this: the more we wish to preserve every detail in films like Robinson… and online, the more these prosthetic memories/our drive to outsource our need/desire to have to remember things, the less, indeed, we do remember things. Heaven forbid, because in so many ways do I disagree with myself for saying this, but Keiller may even be like Tom Hepple: history becomes important to him, but only a version of history that agrees with what he wants history to be. In this sense, both Leigh and Keiller’s perhaps ‘modern’ films are read ‘against the grain’ as ‘postmodern’ – and in fact are revealed to accelerate the ruination of the very thing that celluloid might otherwise have preserved.

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