Mike Leigh turns 70

British filmmaker Mike Leigh turns 70 today. To mark the occasion, I have re-posted all of my articles on him and his films, starting with a phone interview that I did with him for the UBC student newspaper back in 1996.

The occasion for that interview was the release of Secrets & Lies, which I quickly came to regard as my favorite film of the 1990s. Alas, the interview itself did not go as well as I might have hoped, since I was rather under the weather when the appointed time came, and the only free phone was right in the middle of the student-newspaper office — and this was on a production night, no less. So it was very noisy at my end, and I wasn’t quite as on-the-ball as I should have been, and, well, let’s just leave it at that. But it was still an honour to speak to him, and I can only hope that some day I might get the chance to do so again, under better circumstances.

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Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh, 2008)

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.”

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Where sibs are a sin

For the haziest of reasons, there is a near taboo on the portrayal of adult brothers and sisters in film

In When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan famously argued over whether men and women could be friends without one of them wanting to have sex with the other. When I first saw the film 11 years ago, I found it funny, entertaining and a good conversation piece, but I couldn’t help thinking that Crystal and Ryan — neither of whom seemed to have any family beyond their fellow single New Yorkers — had overlooked something. I could certainly think of a few women in my own life for whom this was a non-issue, and one of them was sitting right next to me in the theatre. I refer, of course, to my sister.

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Interview: Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, 1996)

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.

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