Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mike Leigh - High Hopes (1988)

Slice-of-life look at a sweet working-class couple in London, Shirley and Cyril, his mother, who's aging quickly and becoming forgetful, mum's ghastly upper-middle-class neighbors, and Cyril's pretentious sister and philandering husband. Shirley wants a baby, but Cyril, who reads Marx and wants the world to be perfect, is reluctant. Cyril's mum locks herself out and must ask her snooty neighbors for help. Then Cyril's sister Valerie stages a surprise party for mum's 70th birthday, a disaster from start to finish. Shirley holds things together, and she and Cyril may put aside her Dutch cap after all.

Produced in the third term of Margaret Thatcher's government, Mike Leigh's realist and social instincts are plain to see in High Hopes, a film about a working class family living in King's Cross, London. The main characters of the movie are Cyril and Shirley (Philip Davis and Ruth Sheen respectively) a humble couple who hold socialist views, especially Cyril who reads Marx and doesn't appear to have any aspirations for a career beyond his job as a motorcycle courier. Cyril's sister however is an aspirational (and insane) housewife married to an adulterous and immoral yuppie. Alongside this odd juxtaposition is Cyril's mother, a relatively ancient and increasingly vulnerable, sad old lady.

High Hopes is slice-of-life drama in the fullest sense of the definition with an effective undercurrent of socio-political commentary. The undesirability of 80s yuppie culture and the ultimate failure of the Marxist dream enhance what could have been just an average drama more appropriate for weekday TV. Instead with subtle but strong acting and solid direction from Leigh and his crew, High Hopes belies its basis in the bog-standard and stands as a successful social statement and intriguing story. Despite this, there's not much excitement on offer, and the overwhelming message is one of bleakness and the mundane of the everyday: not something that makes the film leap from the screen and allows accessibility.

There is comic relief, particularly in the character of Cyril's sister Valerie: an embodiment of social-climbing at its most deranged. Valerie's excessive outbursts are undoubtedly overplayed as she flips at her Mother's birthday party; nevertheless, it's funny to watch. Otherwise, High Hopes remains quite firmly in the reality of Thatcherite Britain.

Cyril and Shirley are appealing characters despite Cyril's hindering flaws, but it's the elderly Mrs. Bender (portrayed by Edna Doré) who's the star in her own old-age tragedy. High Hopes isn't necessarily high entertainment, but it's an interesting product of a particular moment in British society, poignant in its approach and pointed in its focus. For that, Mike Leaigh deserves praise, Hugh Hopes is a valuable piece on British society for sure. (IMDB comment)

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