The World According to Mike Leigh by Michael Coveney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Real people aren’t.”
I find this aphorism – coined by famous British film director Mike Leigh - the most important sentence in his biography written by Michael Coveney’s. Mr. Leigh, who is mostly known for utterly realistic portrayals of people in his movies, makes the point that to obtain absolute authenticity in a film, one has to thoughtfully, meticulously, and artfully create it. A so-called real person (a non-actor), put in front of a camera, has little chances of projecting cinematic authenticity; nothing is further from reality than "reality shows". In a movie one needs an ensemble of talented, hard-working actors to succeed in conveying truth about people, their behavior, and their interrelationships. And that’s exactly what Mr. Leigh has been doing for almost 50 years in his films and various theatrical and radio productions.
“The World According to Mike Leigh” is an early (1996) biography of the director; at the time of writing most of his best-known films had not yet been made, yet the author does an outstanding job of explaining what sets Mr. Leigh apart from other great movie directors. “Secrets and Lies”, “Happy-Go-Lucky” and "Life Is Sweet" are among the very best films I have ever watched. Hence, while this is supposed to be a review of the biography, I will instead try to convey a few points that the author makes about the director's art, thus morphing the review into "Why I Love Mike Leigh's Movies" manifesto.
Three aspects of Mr. Leigh's work seem to be the most important. First, all his movies and plays are about ordinary events in ordinary lives of ordinary people. There are no star wars, no monsters, no hobbits, no witches, no zombies, no superheroes in his fims; there is nothing there that one would not encounter in their everyday life. As the director says himself, he puts on the screen “real adventure of living and surviving from day to day, and from year to year”, and his films are "about the essence of what it is to be alive”. Timothy Spall, an actor often appearing in Mr. Leigh's movies, provides a memorable phrase: “His area is the glory of everyday nothingness which he elevates to great drama.”
Second, in his movies Mr. Leigh does not attempt to convey any messages: social, cultural, philosophical or otherwise; he says that he is not "a social proselytizer". Instead, he is interested in truth about people and wants to show how they behave, rather than how they should behave or what the viewers should think about their behavior. For instance, in "Secrets and Lies" - to me one of the greatest movies ever made, winner of 1996 Palme d'Or in Cannes - we meet a black daughter of a white mother. In most other directors' hands the film could become just a vehicle carrying messages about racial issues or veer into cheap sentimentality. Nothing like that here - the film offers real human drama and real human joy.
Finally, the actors. The author writes that Mr. Leigh "does not work with stars. He tends, rather to help create them." He works differently than all other directors. Before the movie is made, he does not know the story in any detail, and there is no scenario. Here's what Mr. Coveney writes about the director's method: “He will work one-on-one, initially, with each actor, developing a character […] Each actor […] will not be apprised of any knowledge of the other characters beyond what he or she would know of them as that character at that particular point of the story. The story will be developed chronologically. The characters will meet each other only in situations of Leigh's devising […]”
As good as Mr. Coveney's work is - and here I am unable to avoid comparisons with the utterly horrid biography of Diana Rigg that I have recently suffered through - it is not perfect: the accumulation of minute details about virtually every single work of Mr. Leigh overwhelms the reader. I would love to learn more about how Mr. Leigh's method affects his actors when they work with "conventional" directors. I also find Mr. Coveney's logic suspect in the fragment when he argues about certain cinematic aspects of the pivotal mother-daughter scene in "Secrets and Lies". Hence, I can rate this otherwise wonderful biography with only
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