Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, is the worst film I’ve seen by the filmmaker. Yet given my admiration for Leigh’s filmography, this isn’t entirely a dismissal, per se. But rather it’s tough to watch and consider Peterloo without experiencing a tinge of disappointment. Films like Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky were formative as part of my early cinephilia, and I gladly plundered Leigh’s 80s and 90s output as a result. But Peterloo, with its high-octave candor and unceasing, frenzied displays of histrionics, finds Leigh in a singular mode for the totality of its runtime: Big. One of the most exciting qualities about Leigh’s filmmaking is in how it changes shape on you depending on the will of his performers. That kind of freedom, undoubtedly a result of the vastness of its budget and sheer scope, isn’t an option. As a result, in one of those paradoxical quandaries, we find Leigh’s mammoth ambitions limit the creative will of his filmmaking.Read More
Mr. Turner opens in select theaters this Friday. It expands to Chicago’s Landmark Century Theatre on Christmas Day.
Mike Leigh’s biopic on J.M.W Turner is an oddity. At its center one will find Timothy Spall as the titular character, though to suggest this is a performance would agitate the word. No, the man grunts and wheezes throughout the picture, often rendering much of Spall’s dialogue indecipherable. But this soupçon of Altman-esque technique touches on what makes Mr. Turner so tough to scrutinize. In our difficulty to make out lines of dialogue, the audience finds solace in the frame, marveling at the stunning imagery that Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope display. The ugliness of their character’s features highlights an effort in atmosphere-building and behavior study, effectively recalibrating our expectations as to what a biopic can do. In essence, Mr. Turner submits that the tried-and-true-and-trite subgenre of biopics should not depend on overacted displays of histrionics, but rather accentuate the everyday. Yet in Leigh’s world, the everyday is filled with its highs and lows, with a disproportionate amount of the latter coinciding with old age.Read More
Seeing trailers of Another Year did not inspire confidence – it’s a poorly conceived representation of an emotionally complex and rewarding film. The trailer plays on jovial sentiment, yet from its opening scene, Leigh braces us for a muted celebration of life. The film follows a happily married couple named Tom and Gerri. The two have a son that they adore, friends that they house, and lead a generally pleasant life. They function as an ideal couple, and as such, are remarkable as genuinely sweet characters. As a family, Tom, Gerri and their son look out for one another, and provide the sort of emotional support that one idealizes within a family construct.
It’s the people around them that don’t have their life together. Mary (Lesley Manville) works with Gerri – divorced and needing sobriety, Mary looks to reclaim her youth. But as she ages, her desperation for a family makes her increasingly overbearing. Her sanity teeters, as she observes Tom and Gerri, even latching onto them (and their son) as a means of having somewhere to belong. That sense of belonging is what she so desperately needs.
Leigh positions the narrative within the context of the seasons. It’s a sensible choice – the blossoming spring and summer provide the characters with joy, the fall and winter provide the challenges that need to be overcome. The film does have a trajectory that is fairly simple to navigate, with characters that may seem a little too convenient for the purpose of the narrative, but Leigh manages to provoke such strong emotional reaction that it’s easy to ignore its faults. The final scene in particular, emphasizes a sobering reality that stands as my favorite final shot of 2010.