Friday, 26 June 2009

Hard Labour

Released this past month as part of the Mike Leigh at the BBC box-set, Hard Labour (first broadcast, 12th March, 1973) was the now-highly acclaimed director's second feature length work and his first for the company's long running Play for Today series, to which he would later contribute the more highly-regarded films Nuts in May (1976), The Kiss of Death (1977), Abigail's Party (1977) and Home Sweet Home (1982). As with his debut feature, the stifled, claustrophobic chamber piece Bleak Moments (1971), Hard Labour is a strictly downbeat affair, with the usual characteristic Leigh sense of humour, so brilliantly developed in films like Grown Ups (1980), Life is Sweet (1991) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), being in the formative stages throughout.

Although the humour is mostly absent, the recognisable emphasis on the day-to-day comings and goings of characters living and working through these various situations is as bold and affective as it has remained, thirty-years on; with the natural talent of Leigh as a filmmaker, preoccupied with the minute details that make up the greater whole managing to bring these separate elements together in a way that is intelligent and completely affecting. It is a film that, at its most basic and recognisable, offers us a simple story, or, more specifically, a window into the world of its central character, the middle-aged cleaning lady Mrs. Thornley (Liz Smith). While the character is deliberately refused a first name by the filmmaker, we can nonetheless recognise certain character traits that mark her out as is an even more bedraggled forerunner to the titular Vera Drake; with the poor posture and the softly-spoken voice, barely audible over the constant of family arguments or the distant ambience of the industrial working-class milieu, defining a tone that permeates every second of the drama; from the seemingly pointless conversations to the quiet moments where characters sit and think in stone-faced contemplation.

From this initial set up, Leigh is able to maintain his drama through the continual interaction between the characters; as these scenes of dialog, or the quieter instances where the camera simply holds on a actor's face and they share a moment, bleak or otherwise, are used to suggest deeper, more universal themes that go beyond the characters presented on screen and suggest something recognisably human and relevant to the world in which we live. It's subtle, even without the use of humour to distract us from the otherwise crushing sense of despair, while the development of the characters and the situations they've found themselves in feel very authentic; especially in regards to the world of the film and the motivations of the characters.

As one might expect given the usual implications of the title, Leigh's general approach to the film is to show and then contrast the working life with the family life; opening with a series of short scene-punctuations that perfectly establish the various drab, everyday rituals that make up the routine of this galley of protagonists, as the camera, static and composed, observes in great detail the general running of this dysfunctional lower class family at the start of an average day. These early sequences establish a particular rhythm, with the obvious reiteration of things, as the character asks twice for her husband to lift his feet as she runs the small vacuum cleaner past the chair, across the faded floral carpet - and almost immediately we wonder how many times she's asked and asked again for her husband to shift his legs while she performs this crushing, domestic rite. Back and forth over the carpet with the vacuum cleaner while the husband, weary from work or back from an afternoon of heavy drinking, barks orders or chips away at the character's already tattered self-esteem.

These sequences are captured, like much of the film, in a characteristically loose, narrative-vignette approach that highlights Leigh's continual emphasis on character and observation as a means to explore the deeper, more expressive themes at work beneath the surface. In keeping with such a notion, the film is, in essence, concerned, or obsessed (?), with the little close-up details that make up the bigger picture. Just as the natural accumulation of one day to the next, month on month, year on year, creates the endless spiral of existence as it unfolds, so too does the repetition of scenes that suggest so perfectly that sense of a life in-progress that survives beyond the parameters of the film's frame - beginning and end, opening title to closing credits - creating the sense that the world has turned and continues to turn long after the screen has faded.

Although the film grants an equal amount of screen-time to several characters, both within the family and on the periphery of the drama, it is the perspective of Mrs. Thornley as the family's quiet matriarch who dominates the proceedings; either as a kind of facilitator, offering the characters a chance to meet and interact - bridging the gap so to speak through her job and her commitments between work and home, the suburbs and the sink estate - or simply observing the conflicts and drama, quiet and dignified, though her face, with the sunken eyes and hollowed mouth, revealing everything. The rest of the characters exist around her, and their attitudes and interactions, both in regards to her and the characters around them are largely filtered through this quiet perspective of a character watching from the corners of the frame.

Throughout the film, Leigh cuts back and forth between scenes of Mrs. Thornley at work - polishing the silverware or struggling to carry large bundles of clothes up and down winding carpeted stairs - and the domestic scenes, as she dotes on her chauvinistic husband Jim (Clifford Kershaw), a night watchman who complains endlessly about his bad back and uncomfortable shoes between loveless putdowns and perpetual scowls, and her two grown-up children, Ann (Polly Hemmingway), who still lives at home, though very much has a life of her own, and Edward (Bernard Hill), a car mechanic getting comfortable in one of those new council estates with his bossy young wife Veronica (Alison Steadman). The integration of these characters, as they meet over lunch or Sunday dinner, or during the general progression of an average day, creates the usual clashes of generation, class and personality that we've come to expect from Leigh's cinema; as the petty squabbles and sometimes deep-seated jealousies and anxieties are revealed through the scenes of passive-aggressive confrontation, as one character instinctively taunts the other character to breaking point, either deliberately, or simply because it's possible and part of the natural interaction between characters within a family environment far too comfortable in the company of one and other.

In such sequences, we can see the Leigh of Who's Who (1978), or Meantime (1984), or High Hopes (1988) and even the comparatively recent Vera Drake (2004), and all of these strands passing back and forth through the previously mentioned Abigail's Party to the presentation of scenes herein; scenes in which characters from both ends of the social spectrum are thrown together and allowed to contrast and conflict in a way that not only reveals something about themselves, as characters, but also about the world (this world or Leigh's?) in which they continue to exist.

Though there are several other themes explored in the film, the real emphasis here is on the coexistence of these characters under the broader classification of "the family". Immediately, we can recognise this as a key theme in Leigh's work, in which the differences between these people, connected, but nonetheless at odds, becomes magnified; as that accumulation of time as defined above, exaggerates each characteristic tic or quirk until the idea of simply being in the room with these people is like negotiating a particularly cluttered minefield. As ever with Leigh, the point of such scenes isn't merely the exterior level - the things said between two characters under the pretence of conversation - but the things implied by these sequences - the things going on beneath the surface. Are they really relevant, these discussions of what kind of cheese to get from the precinct or a pair of boots one size too small, or can such conversations fill in the blanks about the relationships between these various characters; their approach to life and, more importantly, their approach to one another?

Take the brief scene between Mrs. Thornley and her daughter at the outdoor-market as one single example. A scene lasting no more than a minute or two of screen time in which the two women sift through piles of half-price underwear on a cluttered weekend market stall. Again, is it important that Ann wants the purple bra? Does it move the narrative forward in a way that creates compelling, exciting drama? No, of course not! But it establishes the contrasts between the mother and her daughter, showing a young woman who exists in a world of fashion and sexuality - a world where sex is a recreational pursuit, to be enjoyed - and a world away from the generation of Mrs. Thornley, where the closest thing to intimacy or affection is being pawed by a husband looking for a drunken post-pub leg-over. The sad desperation of those early evenings, pretending to be asleep to spare her the agony of another awkward assault, as the husband moans and gropes and writhes around beneath the sheets because, in the days before women's lib or god-given-notions of equality, that was his right.

There are the little things too, like the relationship between Ann and her sister-in-law Veronica, both of the same background and generation, who were most probably school friends before Veronica was wooed or pursued her best-friend's (?) brother and now makes life difficult for everyone by projecting her own middle-class aspirations onto this surrogate family, expecting them to reach some higher level of living through economic gain, social-status, and those all important outward appearances. As ever with Leigh, we can view these as the typical concerns with class, which still dominate much of British art and British attitudes, as we glorify the working class, pity those who have achieved some worth in a middle-class sense, though obviously not enough to rank as highly as the smart-set, who we pretend to hate, but really hold enthral. Nonetheless, this class emphasis is really just one of Leigh's many devises, like satire or character improvisation, that is used to map the psychology of characters, developed to a staggering degree from months of intricate pre-production meetings and rehearsal workshops until the creation of a completely functioning character, from birth until the moment that they appear on screen, is formed.

This interest in mapping out the parameters of his characters also extends as far as the world that Leigh creates, which, in a number of ways, seems exactly like the world in which we live, and yet even then there is some process of stylisation or creative abstraction, which is unavoidable. Though many critics continue to cite Leigh as a social-realist, lazily comparing him to the much more socially aware and politically motivated Ken Loach, his work has much more in common with filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu, Maurice Pialat or Rainer Werner Fassbinder; with the emphasis on looking, observing, sometimes dethatched, but concerned with the outcome of these characters; letting the little details of the rooms and the way they're captured tell a story. The small, cramped, two-bedroom house with its outdoor toilet and kitchen too small to move around in; the flowery wallpaper and radios offering nameless songs that could recall seaside romance but instead mock the soot-lined streets and drudgery that waits around each corner; 30p an hour, 3 hours and five mornings, polishing silverware while the lady of the house looks you over, eagle-eyed behind those horn-rimmed spectacles.

With Hard Labour, Leigh creates a rough-around-the-edges film that not only manages to operate in a storytelling capacity - presenting the usual look at character concerns and intricate personal-relationships - but one that also manages to say a great deal about the time and place in which it is set. That particular evocation of the cobble-stone streets and cluttered back alleyways where dogs wander, catching a scent and then off again, bringing to mind the desolate existential landscapes of Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr; with the grit and the grime and the overcast skies recalling a film like Stalker (1979) or Damnation (Kárhozat, 1988). But this isn't science-fiction or expressionist-noir, but the real life dramatisation of a specific time and place; chiefly, Salford, Greater Manchester, in the early 1970's. A changing world, captured so vividly in Morrissey's controversial song Bengali in Platforms from his debut solo album Viva Hate (1989), and in turn the world of The Buddha of Suburbia, with the character of Naseem (Ben Kingsley) and a seemingly secondary sub-plot about back-street abortions, making the relationship with Vera Drake an explicit one, while giving weight to Ann's all-of-a-sudden interest in the particulars of child-birth and her mother's sage advice; "you have to suffer to bring children into the world."

We can recognise these characters, just as we can recognise that sense of domestic drudgery; from the banging on the ceiling with the broom-handle to stir the old-enough-to-know-better daughter, to the "shut up/no you shut up" exchanges of dialog; as dad puts the world to rights through a mouthful of soggy toast. The natural repetition of these scenes repeated, breakfast, lunch and dinner, as Mrs. Thornley, desperate to please, let's her dinner go cold on the table as her husband and daughter shovel it down and ask for more. We can recognise the disappointment of this life from the very first scene, but it is only as the film edges towards its closing moments, and in particular the penultimate scene, that we realise Mrs. Thornley feels it too.

In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, the character attends her Sunday morning confession and reveals to the priest that her dissatisfaction with life and her inability to love or connect with the people around her has become too much to bear. In true Leigh form, this scene, which is brilliantly performed by Smith and shot by the filmmaker with a direct, uncomplicated precision, is emotionally honest and just the right side of painful; as the inability of Mrs. Thornley to express her problem is greeted by half-hearted 'Hail Mary's' and again, that attitude of chauvinism, as yet another man fails to recognise the pain of a woman boxed into a corner and unable to escape. However, in this very obvious mocking of religion, with its agendas and advice that goes nowhere, Leigh actually succeeds in creating a moment that is wickedly funny, if, again, no less painful. Although I maintain that the usual Leigh sense of humour is lacking here, the last-minute reveal of the Priest, flicking through his Sunday newspaper as Mrs. Thornley bares her soul as best she can, does hint at the direction that much of Leigh's work would take following the liberation of the subsequent Nuts in May and the later emphasis on comedy (often black-comedy, or the comedy of everyday life) to undercut the more harrowing moments of personal pain.

These are themes that will become more important as the progression of Leigh as a filmmaker continues on, with the idea of the family and the emotional split between the husband and wife in particular reminding us of the dysfunctional relationships and quiet, inarticulate characters in films like Secrets and Lies (1996) and All or Nothing (2002); where the simple process of sharing a moment over the kitchen table when resentments and anxieties get in the way of our natural instincts to care for one another becomes a form of hard labour in itself. In this respect, the title of Leigh's film not only expresses the daily grind of the character's life as she is forced to care for and pick up after her family and the snobbish middle-class housewives whose posh, Mock-Tudor houses she cleans for a living, but also the notion of life, and in particular married life, as a kind of prison sentence.