I don't get Harold Pinter. And I don't get Mike Leigh.
With Pinter, I'm not sure there's anything to get. Long long ago I remember sitting through every miserable minute of the film version of Betrayal, and I've never come across anything to make me think I'm missing anything. My most recent experience was with a twin-bill at the Atlantic Theater (playing at Classic Stage Company) of his The Collection & A Kind of Alaska. The Collection is a play about a tryst that may or may not have taken place. The costume design was wonderful. The characters were non-entities, so who really cares if there was an affair, or if that one was cuckolded or if this one was cheating. The only drama comes from the fact that it's Pinter, so that the characters are all speaking in a most stentorian way full of portent and meaning. But there is no meaning. A Kind of Alaska is inspired by the work of Oliver Sachs. Someone wakes up after being out of it for 29 years with sleeping sickness. There's a wonderful performance here by Lisa Emery, as the bed-ridden lady. You watch her get out of bed, trying to use those leg muscles she hasn't used in 29 years, and it's a work of art. Can't say enough nice things about it. But I couldn't help but think that it would have been much easier for her to deal with this sudden emergence into a changed world if the people telling her about what had happened had been talking to her like real people, instead of like Harold Pinter people. This isn't a new theme, science fiction novels about time travel or people emerging from cryogenics deal with stuff like this all the time. Somehow or other the manage to get the point across instead of hiding it behind dramatic pauses. If I ever wake up from sleeping sickness or after being in a coma for 18 months and have a Harold Pinter acolyte telling me what happened, I'm going back to sleep.
Mike Leigh is a little different. His new film Another Year which opens soon was a free Variety Screening Series event, and I was willing to see for free what I knew I'd never pay for because at least with Leigh, I can see that there are qualities in what he does that are worth appreciating. Maybe not for me, but if someone really appreciates the stuff that's there kind of like I can really appreciate the fired-agent stuff in Jerry Maguire a lot more than most other people, who am I to complain. This is one of those four seasons plays, spring summer autumn winter sections that range from 20 to 40 minutes, a little over two hours in total. It's about a married couple on in years who like to garden (they have a plot in a community garden), one we meet doing some geology stuff for a pipeline type thingie, the other in her job in a doctor's office dealing with a woman who can't sleep and would prefer just to have a good pill than to route out the underlying cause. She's friends at work with a somewhat flighty and occasionally tipsy receptionist, Mary, who has a thing for their son and is not at all happy when he finds true love elsewhere. In the autumn segment, his very quiet brother dies.
Leigh's style is to work closely with his casts during an improvisational rehearsal period and to write his script based on what the characters find. The leads here, the reliable Jim Broadbent (I loved him on stage in The Pillowman, he plays Horace Slughorn in recent Harry Potter films) and Ruth Sheen, have worked with Leigh's process a lot, and they are fantastic. In fact, the acting is pretty stunning throughout the entire film. And the script is danged good as well. Even though I don't really like Leigh much, I'd have to say this is a good film. You look at the long set piece segments that there are here, the outdoor barbecue during the summer sequence where Mary finds out that Joe has her eyes on someone else and that her crush will go unrequited, or the dinner party when Mary's shown up unexpectedly and is trying to find an equilibrium or the spring scene where we meet the Ruth Sheen character at the office with the character who can't sleep, and they're all really good. Good enough that the film is really quiet but I didn't doze during it at all. Good enough that this opening scene, you'd think it came straight from a Wiseman documentary being filmed at the workplace. It's good true-to-life writing, good true-to-life acting, well-crafted with good camerawork, music, editing. But at the same time you get to the end of it and I couldn't really figure out what the point of it all was. Do I really need to spend two hours watching these characters just to see how or if Mary can deal with her heartbreak in the context of her drinking, or if she can do with it? In spite of all its virtues, you have to admire the craft above all to admire Leigh, not as much as with a Pinter where the craft is truly the be-all and end-all of the discussion, but there really isn't a plot to speak of. The risk in this to my eyes is when you have a script that isn't this good or actors that aren't quite as in tune with it, because when this kind of thing doesn't work on the levels it needs to work on -- well, it really really doesn't work.
Thinking on it, I might be liking Christian Bale's performance in The Fighter more than some of the reviews I've read because he's finding from his Master Thespian Acting approach to his cracked-out character a lot of the same notes that Lesley Manville finds playing the tipsy or worse Mary via the very naturalistic writing style that is found in the Mike Leigh movie. There's this scene at the end of the barbecue when Mary's going to try and drive people back to King's Cross to catch the trains home, and I'm not sure it would be much different if you had Bale's Dicky Eklund character showing up at the barbecue to offer the ride to King's Cross. It's interesting to see how two people can act their way to such similar places from such utterly different directions.
And while I get to the final shot and find myself deflated by the pointlessness of watching for two hours, it is an awfully good final shot. The studio is waging a major campaign to get an Oscar nomination for Lesley Manville, and just as I wouldn't complain to see Christian Bale garnering one for The Fighter, my general lack of excitement for Mike Leigh movies in general shouldn't keep me from saying Manville's performance is worthy of an Oscar nod, as well.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.