Wednesday, December 15, 2010

High Hopes (Mike Leigh) - 1988

High Hopes marks Leigh's second feature film. The first film was Bleak Moments in 1971. It is interesting Leigh took so long to film the second... 17 years later. But, with the time in between he perfected his study of the working class and their strained family relationships. Leigh puts these past themes to great use in this film.

Leigh's High Hopes is one of those break your heart comedies that really recognizes the human condition. The film centers on the sweet, loveable couple of Cyril and Shirley. Cryil is played by Philip Davis (Grown-Ups, Vera Drake). The character is a Marx loving working class fellow unable to take much action, only to live in theory. Ruth Sheen plays Shirely. She's a bit of a nutter. She is nervous, but confident. She laughs nervously and wears her heart on her sleeve.

Cyril's mother is the true heart of the film. Mrs. Bender, as she is named, lives alone in the home she shared with her husband and where she raised her two children, Cryil and Valerie. As she turns 70 she starts to forget things: her keys, her purse, her children's names, etc. The film doesn't spend much time on this oncoming illness. And, to be honest, it saves the film from becoming sentimental. Instead, the film focuses on how the family behaves and deals with their own memory.

Cyril's sister, Valerie, wants to be upper class. She hops around chirping for attention in every scene. She pushes her mother around. Drives a loud car. Owns an extravagant dog. And is constantly bagging for her husband's attention. She is quite a sad character. She almost falls into the trap of being a stereotype, but her presence helps to balance out Mrs. Bender's neighbors.

Mrs. Bender's neighbors are extremely over the top. In fact, they are almost cartoonish. I understand Leigh wants to poke fun at the upper class. He has done this in most of his films. But, these characters come dangerously close to being as absurd as those in Who's Who. They aren't in the film quite long enough to cause any harm. But, when they are present, they wear a little thin.

The film is about aging. With grace and without grace. The line which sums the film up most perfectly: 'Am I scared of getting old? Or am I scared to start looking back?' The film is so much about where we'll end up, but deals with how we got there and what it did to us.

High Hopes is a deeply touching film. Honest, real, slice of life beautiful film.


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