Monday, June 29, 2020

Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule # 84 High Hopes [1988] ★★★½

Throughout the seventies and eighties, director Mike Leigh established himself as one of the most vital voices working in British theater and television. His plays and made-for-TV movies were caustic examinations of his country’s deeply entrenched class system. And though Leigh is now rightfully revered as one of Britain’s greatest film directors, having won top prizes at both Cannes and Venice, there was a time when he couldn’t get his movies funded. Leigh’s creative method favored heavy improvisation, both in terms of dialogue, scene direction, and plot progression. The result was that whenever Leigh went hat-in-hand to producers, he wouldn’t have a working screenplay to pitch.

After releasing his first feature in 1971, he’d be forced to wait seventeen years to make his second, the bittersweet family drama High Hopes that examined class and generational barriers in a rapidly gentrifying late eighties London. Leigh largely divides his cast into two groups, the first being the proletariat represented by Cyril (Phil Davis) and his partner Shirley (Ruth Sheen), both of whom cling to revolutionary ideals of socialism but are trapped in a perpetual stasis of boredom, despair, and simple laziness. After so many years of disillusionment, both are content to work just enough at their 9-to-5’s to pay the bills and spend their off-hours tuning in and dropping out. The other group represents Britain’s upwardly mobile yuppies, assuming nouveau riche airs of rampant materialism and a sociopathic disregard for their “lessers.”

Consider Cyril’s insufferable sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) who puts up with her philandering husband’s escapades solely for the weight of his checkbook and the accoutrements of wealth that come with it. Neurotic yet cruel, she’s practically a Labour Party’s caricature of the Tory-voting bourgeoise. In the center is Cyril and Valerie’s bitter, taciturn, and senescent mother Mrs. Bender (Edna Doré) whose dawning senility leads to the two cringe-inducing centerpieces of the film—her locking herself out of her apartment and Valerie’s throwing her a surprise birthday party which, of course, is actually about showing off her own wealth. She’s the crucible through which the values of both social classes are tested, revealing the innate selflessness of Cyril and Shirley’s and the innate selfishness of Valerie’s. Though frequently funny, the film’s overall mood is one of resigned melancholy that never tips into the outright anger that characterizes Leigh’s most incendiary work.

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