Mike Leigh’s first feature film (funded by a gift of £15,000 from Albert Finney) “Bleak Moments”, a title not likely to pack bums on seats. And bleak it mostly is. Its moments are of the cringeworthy school of pathetic embarrassment kind.
Looking at this I’d say the Mike Leigh oddbodball template was already set in place from the very off.
Lots of mad walking about. And nice cups of tea being made. Secretaries squirreling in maltesers. Awkward silences that hang around like casts of cloud lingering rain. Unhappy eyes in shut up faces looking for and from the sadnesses not being said. Body language betraying emotions (usually wearing various undercoats of neurotic distress)
And here all the usual Mike Leigh crowd – of shy social misfits, lonely loners, minor melancholics, timid isolates, malajusted miserables, dysfunctionals, inadequates – for me to feel my perverse kind of belonging to.
So in this film we’ve got 5 repressed characters hidden – or indeed tortured – inside various shades of shyness. Sylvia is slightly less shy than mumbly Norm. But not as pathologically repressed as fish-eyed Peter. Or as passively aggressively irritating as Pat. Or as special needs abnormal as sister Hilda.
Actually, they’re all “special needs” dysfunctional. Suffering with – and from – disabling self-consciousness disease. Can’t get out of themselves. Can’t get away from crippling consciousness of lack: of class, connection, creative self-expression. They all zombie about inside the morgue of themselves in a kind of catatonic stupor of locked-in syndrome.
Hey you lot?! I want to shout, everybody needs to take a chill pill, breathe out, relax, decompress, unrepress. But of course, back then (all of 40 years ago?!) they didn’t know how, hadn’t got the wherewithal (or the therapy) (or the internet), were still too deep conditioned, trapped, imprisoned (by Mike Leigh’s barely explored or fathomed, sexual – and social – Inferiority Complex Neurosis)
Its all very well done, and deliberately overdone, accentuated. Acutely, and intensely, and almost pathologically, observed.
Sylvia – played beautifully by Anne Raitt – is secretary and carer. But unfulfilled. Needs some sex. Wants some touch. But the 2 blokes she’s shyly flirting it on with are useless.
Here she is with hippy-trippy Norm from Scunthorpe
So sweet isn’t she? “I’m the President of Venezuela”. But its not going to happen with Norm. He’s too moggy mongrel. She needs a pedigree chum. Not a Norm, with his manifest Mike Leighisms (finger twitching, facial ticc-ing, hair twiddling, mumble muttering, nibbling out crumbs of words around the edges of barely audible or intelligible sentences)
Next up is Peter. “One has to learn a language for communication” says Teacher Peter. A language he patently hasn’t got. Arrested Aspergers I reckon (afflicts numerous Mike Leigh characters) He’s tangling her up in his heady “conversational gambits” abstraction. “I don’t think conversational gambits are ever much use, they seem to me to be an evasion of what is going on” she says astutely.
Give her a kiss Pete – for Gods sake!
What a dismal disconnect that was. He couldn’t talk the talk. Couldn’t touch her touch. And the walk to that kiss was like a man condemned to some kind of sense death. He’s having to run his embarrassment towards the door, the tail of failure flaccidly limped between his legs. And Sylvia, although disappointed, is not defeated. She’s stronger than he is. Seeing him out, she’s already over him.
Anne Raitt’s authenticates Sylvia somewhere quite deep and unpantomimed inside. She doesn’t undermine – by overplaying – her pathos with too much farcicality (a fault that befalls the other characters and makes them too caricatured to be entirely credible) (unfortunately, this is a persistent failing in nearly every Mike Leigh film I’ve seen: actors lock themselves down and in parodic assemblages of grotesque traits, tics, and tendencies)
Anne Raitt’s Sylvia, hair stuffed up tight in a Bronte bun, that gap in her front teeth: is an embodiment of stoical Jane Eyre like grace, and shy subversiveness, flirting and daring herself to break out of all this self-absorbed torpor. Self-consciousness becomes self-awareness in her, a kind of self-possession that is not entirely caught up or contained (by useless blokes, and clueless bosses, and demented sisters)
Doubt I’ll want to sit through this bleakery again. Its like watching a load of shy mice twitching snuffly silences into one another that are always landing too far away to reach any touchable connection. From out of the inaudible comes only muffle and mumble, a mouse-squeak of the barely expressible.
The disconnect between these repressed characters feels like its being controlled on remote, and somebody (Mike Leigh, you bastard) keeps hitting the mute button.
But of course it was a shy-er time back then. There were many, and mainly mostly, only bleak moments to be had in 1971. I was there. I can vouch for it. I was one. Of them. Of these.
Dir: Mike Leigh, UK