Thursday, December 9, 2010

Abigail's Party (Mike Leigh) - 1977

Abigail's Party is another play turned TV film by Mike Leigh. This marks a point in Leigh's career where he is no longer totally in control of the creation of the film. Leigh is known for his improvisational films. Many of the plays of Mike Leigh, and the films to follow, are devised by Mike Leigh instead of written by him. Leigh decides, creates, a plot and characters. But, he spends a lot of time allowing the actors to create their characters and the lines. Leigh is very much a director who supports his actors and allows them to really create their roles. This is used to complete perfection in Leigh's Secret & Lies.

In Abigail's Party, the character of Beverly (played by Alison Steadman) is created mostly by the actress and less by Leigh. While watching the film it is very obvious how much Steadman owns this character. Every move and statement feels thought through and complex and required. It is an extreme form of acting. At times it may feel like overacting. But, I feel once you've grown comfortable with Steadman's characterization of Beverly, you will very quickly begin to understand the character.

The film reminds me of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm which is based on a Rick Moody novel. I would love to find out if Abigail's Party played any influence in the creation of either the film or the novel. The themes of repressed sexuality, heavy flirting, and a change of an era are very present in both The Ice Storm and Abigail's Party. I will even go so far as to suggest the character of Susan (played by Harriet Reynolds) is a repressed and shy version of Sigourney Weaver in The Ice Storm.

The hostess of the play's title is a 15 year old we are never shown. Abigail is the daughter of Susan. We only hear the sounds of music and the occasional loud voice coming from the party. On the same night as this party, Beverly has decided to have a small gathering of people to her home. Her husband joins Susan, and two new neighbors to this party. At first everyone is very quiet and the conversation is boring. After a few drinks, a little bit of honesty and aggression is revealed. Mike Leigh is the master of discomfort and dissecting the way we are never fully able to communicate with those around us.

The film's production is a bit bad. Even Leigh is embarrassed to look back at this film. But, the acting and the writing are superb. In fact, I can't believe at how incredible this almost unknown little gem is. Any fan of Leigh's or any fan of films that attempt to understand the reasons we behave the way we do in social settings may be wise to take a look at this film.


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