Great Movie Performances from the films of Mike Leigh

Great Movie Performances from the films of Mike Leigh
I try and create for the audience something that relates to real-life experience.
Mike Leigh generally likes to keep quiet about his working methods, but in past interviews some of his actors have given us an insight into what methods are actually used when creating their fully rounded characters. Each character, using interviews, improvisations and even field trips can take months to evolve. Each character’s history begins in one-to-one discussions (a bit like therapy) with Leigh. Each actor is then asked to discuss and create a list of people they know or have met who this particular character could be based on. This discussion and research will help fill out the authenticity of that unique character.
Each character in each particular film or theatre project are completely unaware of what the other performers are creating with Leigh’s guidance. This is until Leigh then begins experimenting with character interaction, some of them coming into contact with one another with the help of a scenario and lots of improvisation.
This improvisation is a way for the actors to start living the role – there may be hours of experience that may never even make it into the film script. But it’s this improvisation that helps build and create the characters and therefore story for the final piece. Bit by bit the script is put together and built by these improvisational findings. Even when it comes to shooting the film, scenes may be added or cut.
Below are some of our favourite performances from the work of Mike Leigh. Apart from Johnny in Naked, the rest in our list are some of Leigh’s most formidable female characters to date.
If you have a favourite performance from a Mike Leigh film or an idea for a featured director please let me know by getting in touch or via Twitter
Beverly in Abigail’s Party
When most people think of Mike Leigh’s work, Alison Steadman’s character Beverly in Abigail’s Party always comes to mind.
Abigail’s Party was originally written for the stage in 1977 by Leigh which then became a part of the BBC anthology series Play for Today, under which banner it was broadcast. When repeated for a second time in August 1979, around 16 million people watched.
The plot is a simple one and follows real time. Beverly has invited some of her new neighbours, Angela and Tony, over for a few drinks and nibbles. She has also invited her divorced neighbour, Sue, over mainly due to Sue’s fifteen year-old daughter, Abigail, is holding a party in their house and doesn’t want Sue to be there.
Beverly’s husband, Lawrence comes home late from work, just before the guests arrive. The gathering starts off in a stiff insensitive British middle class way with people who are not acquainted, until Beverly and Lawrence start sniping at one another. This tension and sniping escalates and becomes a overheated tirade which ends with Laurence suffering a fatal heart attack.
The play was dominated by Alison Steadman’s compelling performance as the social climbing Beverly, who is an overbearing hostess who stumbles through the evening with a series of cringe-making social blunders like putting red wine in the fridge and forcing everyone to listen to Demis Roussos.
Hers was a star-making performance that firmly established Abigail’s Party as the most celebrated TV play of the 1970s and enhanced the reputation of Mike Leigh who had won critical acclaim the year before with Nuts in May.
Alison Steadman based Beverly on a lady she knew whilst at Drama school in Essex, she merged this person with a woman she saw demonstrating a make-up range at a department store who either knowingly or unknowingly humiliated a lady she had plucked from the passing shoppers and telling a watching crowd she had applied her lipstick very badly.
Steadman in a recent interview on Beverly said that that such character extremes exist in real life: “Sitting on the bus, you’ll see Mike Leigh characters getting on left, right and centre. There are extremes – people go from normal to completely over the top. She adds: Most comedy is like a magnifying glass. You enlarge reality slightly.”
Johnny in Naked
“You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet stinks.” — Johnny, Naked
David Thewlis played Johnny in Leigh’s 1993 black comedy drama film, Naked . Johnny is the central character protagonist in one of Leigh’s grimmest tales which is more stark and brutal than his previous works. Johnny is an angry, yet articulate, blackly philosophical character who is on the run when a sexual encounter with a married woman in a Manchester back alley turns into a rape. He then absconds and ends up in London searching for an old girlfriend. The story is virtually plot-free; instead, as the mood darkens even further, Johnny meets a succession of unsavoury types, whose purpose is to listen to his rants before eventually getting himself viciously beaten up
The centrepiece of Naked for me is the lengthy scene where Johnny goes into great detail about his doomsday predictions with Brian, a warm natured night watchman.
Cannes loved the film, naming Leigh best director and Thewlis best actor.
On working on Naked and with Leigh, Thewliss gave a great insight on how this acclaimed director works works.
I had a blast making it [Naked], it was the most fulfilling, creative experience I’ve ever had, to work in that depth. I’d already made a short film, “The Short and Curlies”, in 1987 with Mike Leigh, and a feature, “Life is Sweet”, in 1991. When you work with Mike you put so much into it whether you’re playing a big part or a small part. I remember on “Life is Sweet”, it was before mobile phones and you had to wait at home all day when rehearsing. You couldn’t go out because if he had an improvisation on the go, he might suddenly think: it would be great if David’s character walks into this now. It’s like being a fireman, you’re waiting to be called any moment. Really, I wrote myself out of most of “Life is Sweet”. During an improvisation I walked out on Jane Horrocks, who was playing my girlfriend, and that was it: I’d screwed myself. If I’d proposed marriage, I’d have been in the film more!”
“On the first day of beginning to work on what became “Naked”, it was just me, him and several cups of coffee, with me talking about everyone I know. I don’t know how much Mike already had in mind about what he wanted to do, but I know how much each of us brought to it. The actor provides the people who he or she knows – a list of literally hundreds of people – and Mike narrows it down to 20 to ten to five to three to two.”
“It’s very hard to explain Mike’s process. It would be interesting for a psychiatrist to sit in on his rehearsals because where your head goes is quite extraordinary. Without wanting to sound wanky, you feel like you’re channelling something. I remember coming out with stuff and not even thinking it. My mouth just said it.”
“Quite close to filming, he does this thing called “Quiz Club”: he’ll ask a series of questions like: “Has your character ever planted a tree?” You all sit there and answer them to yourself. Or: “What does your character think of Mickey Mouse? Has he ever seen a real Picasso?” This goes on for an hour or two.”
“There are very strict rules. You’re not allowed to come out of character, unless Mike says so, no matter what is happening, short of it getting too violent in a way that Mike may not realise.”
Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies
“You gotta laugh, ain’t ya sweetheart? Else you’d cry” – Cynthia, Secrets and Lies
In Secrets and Lies , Brenda Blethyn plays Cynthia, a working-class woman whose life has been a long series of painful disappointments. She’s single with no romantic prospects and has a dead-end job at a box factory. Her daughter Roxanne works as a street sweeper and is chronically bitter, which does nothing to help Cynthia’s situation.
Cynthia receives a phone call from a woman named Hortense (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who claims to be the daughter that Cynthia put up for adoption many years ago. Not surprisingly, Cynthia initially reacts with sheer panic, but agrees to meet Hortense and is surprised to discover that she’s a successful and soft-spoken eye doctor and that she’s black.
In time, Cynthia is soon convinced that Hortense is her long lost daughter, and they quickly form a friendship that gives Cynthia a new source of emotional strength. However, when Cynthia decides to introduce the family to her new ‘friend’, it forces them to confront the lies and evasions that have kept them apart all these years.
Leigh was inspired by people close to him who had had adoption-related experiences to make a film about adoption. Speaking on the subject, he stated: “I wanted for years to make a film which explored this predicament in a fictitious way. I also wanted to make a film about the new generation of young black people who are moving on and getting away from the ghetto stereotypes. And these were jumping off points for a film which turns out to be an exploration of roots and identity.”
The film really highlights the great talent that is Benda Blethyn. There are many facets to Cynthia’s character, which with the help of Leigh, Blethyn could then create. “The character I played, Cynthia, is the sort of woman you might not give a second glance to,” says Brenda Blethyn. “Watching the film you suddenly understand why she is the way she is and hopefully you become more tolerant. At the same time, you see Cynthia making judgements about her sister-in-law but then discover that she too has reasons for being the way she is and they’re totally sympathetic. I think Mike is a master of the craft.”
“I remember the shoot being lonely. Working with Mike, you don’t discuss your work with anybody. You’re kind of cocooned with your character, and Cynthia is a lonely character. But I could drive home in my Mercedes at the end of a long day to a nice meal cooked by my partner. Who could she talk to? It was eye-opening. She’s become almost like an old friend. You almost feel like ringing her up to see how she is.”
For Secrets and Lies , Brenda Blethyn earned an Academy Award for Best Actress while Marianne Jean-Baptiste was nominated as Best Supporting Actress. Blethyn’s wonderful performance as Cynthia also won her Best Actress at Cannes.
Mary in Another Year
Another Year takes place over four seasons, where we see married couple, Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) live their life with their family, friends and work colleagues. Over time, Tom and Gerri’s home has become a magnet for all those lost and damaged souls that they have come into contact with.
Tom’s old mate Ken (Peter Wight) is an overweight boozer with unresolved issues, and then there is Mary, played by Lesley Manville, a secretary in the GP’s office where Gerri works. Manville plays Mary, a 50ish single woman beset by loneliness and desperation who stands apart from the jovial, happily married couple that is Tom and Gerri.
Mary has a history of doomed relationships. She talks too much, dresses too young and flirts inappropriately with younger men not to mention the heavy drinking which always makes her maudlin. Mary is the character who kicks the narrative mechanism into gear. She is a lonely divorcee, superficially sparky and cheerful, but dependent on her friends, and putting a tragically unconvincing brave face on the awful way her personal life is turning out.
In Another Year, Leigh fashioned for Manville a character complex and arresting enough to stand alongside his most memorable female creations which include Imelda Staunton’s Vera Drake and Brenda Blethyn’s reluctant mother Cynthia in Secrets and Lies.
As the story unfolds, each ‘chapter’ or ‘season’ includes a visit to the Hepple home from Mary. And in the heartbreaking last scene, it is Manville’s Mary on whom the camera finally comes to rest.
Because Mike Leigh starts work with his actors without a script, urging them to ‘research’ their characters, and developing his story as they progress, it is hard for them to know in advance how big their roles might be. Manville says it never dawned on her that Mary was such a key figure until the final scene was shot. “The most clue you get about your involvement is: how long are you booked for? We had 18 weeks’ rehearsal before the cameras came, and I was booked for 16 of them. So to that extent you know you’re going to be a major player.”
At other times with Leigh, the opposite has been true for her. She wasn’t meant to be in Secrets and Lies, but had a scene as a social worker because another actress had to be replaced. In High Hopes, she took a relatively minor role as Laetitia Boothe-Brain, one half of a callous posh couple.
In co-creating Mary with Leigh, Manville says she had in mind someone “who lost friends, moved, and moved again. She had no siblings. Her father left her, her mother left her. So loneliness was something she grew up with. It became a base ingredient of her life, even as a child. I see aspects of people I know in Mary. But it’s not an impersonation. Yet when people say “you’ll know a Mary” I know what they mean, because there’s a lot of women on their own, lonely and all that.”
This role of a lifetime won Manville rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and there was widespread surprise that Manville was not named best actress, although she was nominated.
Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky
In Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a primary school teacher who was born cheerful. Whatever happens in her life, even coming into contact with a deranged driving instructor she bounces back. “She has a talent for happiness,” says Hawkins, “she doesn’t take things personally. She is not on the defensive. She doesn’t judge. And here is the key to Leigh: everything is character driven – and he doesn’t judge. Women are happy because of who they are more than because of what happens to them.”
Hawkins was no stranger to Leigh’s work when she began working on Happy-Go-Lucky . She has been working with the director since playing her minor role as Samantha in All or Nothing in 2002. She then worked with him again in 2004 on Vera Drake, which helped her understand even more about Leigh and how he created a film from scratch via a series of improvisations and rehearsals.
“Mike’s way of working makes complete sense to me because you’re creating these real people and the worlds in which they live. He has to be very secure that you not only know the character’s history but also what they had for breakfast that morning, what books they’re reading, what they’re watching on the television. You’re chomping at the bit to go and when he releases you, it’s like a spring. It’s like stepping into a different life that is already set up.”
“But every day presented a different challenge. It felt at times like I just had to keep running, to keep going from scene to scene with lines learnt only days – and, sometimes, minutes – before the camera started rolling. Mike never stops pushing and searching, looking in every corner at every detail. As an actor you are constantly being tested and going to places you never thought you could go to. I think Poppy’s spirit and energy helped me through. It was a joy to jump into her skin; she is light and funny, with a very twinkly, naughty sense of humour.’
“Mike never stops pushing. As an actor you are constantly being tested and going to places you never thought you could go to.”
Vera in Vera Drake
In 2004 Imelda Staunton played Vera Drake. Set in the early 1950’s, Vera is a happy working class devoted mother who not only cares for her family but works as a tender hearted abortionist on the side. While the practice itself was illegal in 1950s England, Vera sees herself as simply helping women in need, and always does so with a smile and kind words of encouragement. Vera plods along with this side line until a procedure goes wrong and one of her ‘patients’ nearly dies. Vera’s secret activities are then exposed to her family when she is finally arrested.
Imelda Staunton was interviewed about Vera Drake and was asked about what she thought of the script before she took the role. “Well, with Mike Leigh there is no script. He never uses a script so the film was six months in preparation, which is improvising and creating these characters and huge amounts of research, and then three months filming it. Even when we started filming it I didn’t know how the film was going to end or anything, so it’s a voyage of discovery, to say the least.”
“Mike empowers you as an actor. We created together the character of Vera from the day she was born. The creative process was long but very fulfilling, because it involved improvisations and extensive research of the whole period.”
“The sessions with Mike are always very personal, one-to-one. During that time, you don’t talk to the other actors at all. You don’t exchange notes about what youre doing, or what theyre doing. Each one of us only talks to Mike. My sessions with Mike varied in length, but they were always one-to-one.”
“We created the part together. During the actual filming, we might add a line here and there. But we rehearsed the whole thing so well that, by time shooting began, the whole improvisation was locked down”
Staunton describes working on the role as “exhilarating” It was only later that “the fall-out happened. Vera Drake made a dent in my head that, at the time, I was not aware of at all. Three or four years later, I was thinking about it all the time. I’d lost that family, lost that woman. Vera made a huge impact on me.”