Sunday, 13 December 2009

Nuts in May

In an earlier post regarding the DVD release of the Mike Leigh at the BBC box-set, I described this particular film, Nuts in May (first broadcast January 13th, 1976), as "loose and rambling"; a two word pairing that not only underlines the direction that these characters take throughout the course of their literal journey through the English countryside as defined by the plot, but in the practical, presentational way in which Leigh allows his story to unfold and eventually develop. In what has now become fairly characteristic of the director's individual approach to cinema, Nuts in May is an intelligent if somewhat fairly broad character-study enlivened by moments of keenly observed social-satire; where the elements of conflict, drama and humour central to our engagement with the film are created by the endearingly awkward interactions between each member of the cast, and the often uncomfortable, or sometimes absurd situations, to which they're confined.

Although it is a much lighter film in disposition than the majority of Leigh's work, either before or since, the general thematic development of Nuts in May is nonetheless an essential example of Leigh's particular ability to create moments of conflicting drama from even the most honest and basic of situations. These situations could (and indeed do) include anything from the pitching of a tent or the excavation of a centuries old fossil, to the more reflective, interpersonal moments, of which the vast majority seem drawn from the small-scale spectacle of everyday life. In taking these two characters and introducing them as a married couple, eventually revealing the minute details of their lifestyle and pursuits through the wry dialog and the interaction of the characters, Leigh is able to create something that works on several levels; not simply as a character study, or as a wider satire on a particular subculture or general ideology, but as something that establishes a number of themes germane to the broader parameters of Leigh's cinema: chiefly, the ideas of conflict and co-existence.

Despite being set within the midst of the beautiful rolling-green countryside of Dorset, on the south-west coast of England, Nuts in May has enough similarities to later films like Grown Ups (1980) or Meantime (1984), in which the domestic disputes and disagreements of different characters attempting to get along with one another is used to explore deeper, more complex themes pertaining to the basics of human psychology. In fact, Leigh himself has stated that his intention with Nuts in May was to produce an urban drama in a rural setting, so that the contrasts between characters from numerous walks of life attempting to co-inhabit a particular shared space - like the cramped living rooms and kitchens that one might find in the suburbs, or on a council estate - could be used as a springboard for the purposes of discussing more universal themes or ideas not necessarily related to plot.

As something of a departure for Leigh, not just in terms of its setting or in the basic concept of characters on the road (so to speak), Nuts in May could be seen as an attempt at filtering its drama (in both structure and approach) through two very different and distinct filmmaking forms. Most obviously, the situation comedy, or in fact, more specifically, the English situation comedy, as typified by the likes of The Good Life (1975) or The Last of the Summer Wine (1973) - in which eccentric if well-meaning characters are established and then placed into a recognisably, every-day situation - and the road movie: as our two characters become almost like guides to this strange shambolic trek around the English coast, bringing us along, as if passengers on a journey, and allowing us to share in the ups and downs of their experiences. As ever, Leigh captures this action in a way that is mostly unobtrusive, observing these characters, either in a very reserved, almost documentarian approach, or shooting hand-held from the back of the couple's car (which continues that notion of the audience as part of the drama; the brought-along hitchhiker, caught up in the narrative and along for the ride).

It is in the relationship between the two central characters that the basis for the various emotional responses to both the comedy and the drama are formed; with the obvious contrasts of background and attitude - as one character's quirks or preoccupations are played off against another wildly different character - being used in order to trigger personal associations in an attempt to make the situations more real and our response to these characters, as they move from laughable to sympathetic, all the more authentic. Unlike many of Leigh's others films for television, the characters from Nuts in May were pre-existing, with the film created around two characters that Leigh had originally developed for an earlier theatre production, in which the domestic-life of the central couple was documented in a kind of two-act, interior-set comedy of manners - more in keeping perhaps with the director's follow-up film, the highly successful and now fairly iconic television play, Abigail's Party (1977). In adapting these characters for the cinema, Leigh opens the drama up; taking his characters on the road, removing them from their protective domestic setting in which their traits and eccentricities were freely accepted, and turning them loose on the world, so that these same characteristics can be observed by both the audience and the supporting cast to better contrast the deeper psychological implications of their actions.

In this sense, the title of the film, as ever with Leigh's screen titles, has certain hidden implications, here relating back to the traditional children's rhyme: which establishes a certain generational background and the notion of a pairing between the male and female protagonists (and also, you could argue, the male and female characters that will later appear on the fringes of the narrative). However, the title can also work as a fairly obvious though no less amusing pun; the idea that the nuts in season are actually the two central characters; nuts, as in "oddballs", on holiday in the month of May (with May relating to the May Day celebrations, or the May Bank Holiday, when families often plan weekends away). The film opens with the screen title rendered in a cheerful font - brightly coloured in an almost picture-postcard parody to better make light of that once most curious of English pursuits: the countryside camping holiday - superimposed over a shot of the ferry as it arrives in Dorset with the two main characters in tow. On the soundtrack our jovial protagonists Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman) sing their own self-composed folk song about an escape to the country, in which the improbably twee-lyrics and the yearning sense of innocence as expressed in the song's particular worldview, seems to underline the broader aspects of their relationship and the general dynamics of the trip itself.

I want to get away she said
I want to get away
I'll take you on a trip he said
We'll have a holiday
We'll be with Mother Nature
And laugh and sing and play
I want to get away she said
I want to get away

I wonder where we'll go, she said
I wonder where we'll go
I'll look around the world, he said
I'll search both high and low
The prettiest is Dorset, it has so many charms
We'll walk across the hills and dales
And look at all the farms

The contrast between these two forms, with the characters singing their song with a dual guitar and banjo accompaniment over a travelogue of images shot from the back of the couple's car, creates that perfect evocation of the escape to the country - the get-away, as it were - where couples would leave behind the toil and the strife of the suburbs or the big city and get back to nature. That Keith, in his self-composed lyric to the song, expresses an urge to walk across the hills and dales "looking at all the farms" is in complete contrast to Candice-Marie, who corrects his lyric, claiming that "linking each other's arms" is the more emotionally expressive dénouement to the pastoral evocation that they're creating. Keith's natural reaction is to dismiss the suggestion - "that doesn't scan!" - seems to illustrate right from the very beginning the sense of order and efficiency that Keith strives for; setting their holiday to a strict day-to-day timetable and preplanning every facet of the trip, right down to the most effective footwear for clambering on rocks or walking the footpath to the beach.

As the relationship develops, and the correlation between the two characters becomes more clearly defined, we can question the subtleties of this introduction, or what it says about our protagonists. When Candice-Marie sings "I want to get away", are we to see this simply as a yearning for the open road, fresh air and countryside, or is it instead a subtle hint to her dissatisfaction with the strict, know-it-all Keith? We can take it either way. Likewise, in the later scene, when the couple perform their song about London Zoo, which has the same melody, chord structure and rhythm as the song from earlier in the film, the phrasing of the lines "I want to see the zoo, she said, I want to see the zoo" / "I want to take you there, he said, I want to go with you" could hint at the fact that despite his bluster and need to get his own way, it is actually Candice-Marie who wears the trousers in the relationship, and without her, Keith would effectively be nothing. If we choose this interpretation, then the relationship between Candice-Marie and their campsite neighbour Ray (Anthony O'Donnell) takes on a different quality, as she seems to be generally interested in the young man, even coercing her husband into taking a picture of the two of them together. It also, to some extent, explains the sexless relationship that the married couple share, with the particular association between them seeming at times to be more like that of the teacher and his student. He is full of his own stuff and nonsense, older than his years. She works in a toy shop and sleeps with a purple kitten-shaped hot water bottle named Prudence.

The brilliance of Nuts in May is that it allows these characters to develop and evolve naturally, without relying on the usual melodramatic superfluities, intrusion of plot twists or creative editing to make the process more direct. The narrative builds gradually, introducing the two central characters, placing them in a situation, allowing them the time to interact with the situation, to use it as a means of developing their own characters in more detail, before another character is introduced into the situation to cause a conflict that drives the narrative further towards its natural resolution. With the arrival of Ray, and later the brash and jubilant couple Honky and Finger (played by Sheila Kelley and Stephen Bill), Leigh creates a natural chain of events that will push the characters to the very edges of their patience, once again illustrating that idea of co-existence, or the neighbourhood power struggle that he would return to in Grown Ups, or Home Sweet Home (1982).

Although the issue of class, so often crucial to much of Leigh's wok, and particularly of these early television films, such as Hard Labour (1973) or Abigail's Party, is mostly absent from the development of Nuts in May, it does find a certain parallel with the way Keith and Candice-Marie are seen by the locals, who can smell their suburban back-to-nature bullshit from a mile off. It's particularly palpable in the scenes between our central couple and the pig farmer, who seems to get an enormous amount of pleasure from informing Keith that the filed in which they wish to spend the night doesn't have a toilet, and the policeman, who, in one of the most cruel scenes in the film, stops the couple and penalises Keith for having obscured the rear-window of his car with camping equipment. There is also some hint to the nastier side of Keith, who, in angrily confronting Honky and Finger, screams to them to "get back to [their] tenements", which cuts through the audience with all the ferocity of a particularly violent racial slur. However, such moments simply add depth to the characters, never turning them into caricatures, as is the usual criticism of Leigh's work, but simply offering the different shades and aspects of a personality that makes up the greater whole.

As is often the case with Leigh's work, the richness of these characterisations and the work that he and his actors put into the creation of these fully-functioning individuals - with full back stories and carefully drawn relationships - seems to push the viewer into becoming an armchair psychiatrist, trying to "understand" these characters, their actions and their motivations. However, to read too directly into these sketches could easily take away from the immediacy of the drama, or the sheer entertainment value that comes from witnessing these perfectly nuanced performances, where those involved act and react to the situations, or to the other characters, and make it seem entirely without effort. Although plagued by eccentricities and at times downright exasperating traits, we never find these characters repellent or repulsive. We enjoy the company of Keith and Candice-Marie, even though they're irritating, or occasionally self-righteous. Even with Keith, all well-meaning arrogance and authoritative tone, attempting to force his lifestyle on the various other characters encountered during the course of his journey, and condescending in his approach to his own wife, who in turn is skittish and naive, peeking out from beneath an oversized bobble-hat and national-health glasses, and speaking in a slow, monotonous drone, each sentence posed as a question, we nonetheless feel something for these characters, and can offer empathy and understanding when the film ends on a note of quiet desperation.

In a recent interview with the broadcaster Mark Lawson for the BBC (to coincide with the release of this particular box-set), Leigh claimed that his preferred ending for the film would have had Keith and Candice-Marie camped out atop the enormous phallic erection of The Cerne Abbas giant - which would, in his mind, have been the perfect ironic critique of the couple's central relationship - but the lack of funding made it impossible. As it stands, the current ending is just fine. There's no shot of the ferry to end the film, or to wrap up this disastrous journey, so we're left with the suggestion that this closing scene, tranquil enough, but also fairly tragic in its own way, will just continue, with Candice-Marie happily strumming out a song about the need for conservation, as Keith pops behind the pigpen with a roll of toilet paper, giving some vague reference to what would have been Leigh's original title, "Eaten By A Pig".