Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”
Mike Leigh’s films are a paradoxical mix of tight directorial control and letting the chips fall where they may. He begins each film by gathering a cast around a basic premise, then getting the actors to improvise a storyline. But once a character’s next move has been determined, everything is scripted, rehearsed and executed with exacting precision. The result is an extremely professional work in which neither you nor the filmmakers ever quite know what’s going to happen next.