Reasons To Be Cheerful

Film still for Reasons To Be Cheerful

With new films from Leigh and Loach, UK cinema is remembering its bad manners. By Ryan Gilbey

The opening shot of Mike Leigh's most recent and most assured cinema film All or Nothing might in its concentrated dourness seem a peculiar cause for celebration. The camera is stationed at one end of a cramped corridor. At the other a young woman is industriously absorbed in the task of mopping the floor. It doesn't appear to be getting any cleaner. Mournful strings make their presence felt on the soundtrack. An elderly woman appears in the background, taking fearful steps along the slippery floor, and for a few tortuous seconds you hold your breath and wonder if Leigh is about to puncture the solemnity with a jolt of tasteless slapstick. He isn't, as it happens - the woman simply rejects the cleaner's passing pleasantry with a vinegary sneer and hobbles off camera. But it's an easy mistake to make. The film wrings much of its weirdly charged power from forcing glum situations to their dreadful conclusions, until the audience feels compelled, just as it might at a Fassbinder film, to ask: what else can possibly go wrong?

In its stubbornness, its austerity and its almost self-parodic bleakness, that first shot in All or Nothing promises a lot, and before it's over it may have occurred to you that the film's title has the ring of a dare about it. That's appropriate: there are shots here, even entire scenes, when you pull back from the screen as if from a furnace, usually because the camera itself has forsworn any such retreat. Perhaps that's why I felt an impulse that was alien, at least to my experience of watching Mike Leigh movies - about half way through that opening shot I had the urge to cheer. Those films described as crowd-pleasing - a term so ubiquitous it has lost whatever dubious currency it had - typically seek to unite the audience in laughter or goodwill. But All or Nothing, like several other new British films, should please a different kind of crowd - anyone, in fact, who has become weary of homegrown movies that have about them the neediness of the collecting tin.

The subject of British cinema is to most film critics what mother-in-laws are to end-of-pier comedians, but with greater justification. The demise of FilmFour has provided only the most recent opportunity for the airing of well-rehearsed complaints about the industry's shortcomings - in particular its deference to American formats and palates. But it would be a pity if this casual dissent prevented us from noticing that a significant number of recent British movies have aggressively bucked this trend. Perhaps that's too equivocal, too cognisant of the risk, in moments like these, of sounding like Colin Welland. But it's true. The last two years have seen profoundly encouraging debuts from Jamie Thraves (The Low Down) and Nick Love (Goodbye Charlie Bright). And 2002 has been an even more dazzling year for adventurous British cinema - a banner year, in fact, to prize alongside 1982, when Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract and ageing iconoclast Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital were released, or 1985, when My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev provided an earthy antidote to the well-upholstered costume dramas that had begun to cramp the country's cinematic identity.

An American friend visiting London reacted to my claims for 2002 with some scepticism, but then she'd just seen Bend It Like Beckham, a film which from its ingratiating title down attempts to programme its audience's contentment. There are few things more offputting in a picture than the film-maker's raw need for approbation; you can feel it in Bend It..., in Lucky Break, in Greenfingers, and it makes you squirm. By contrast, 2002 has delivered a string of films that wholeheartedly abstain from the pleading, the spoonfeeding, which have come to characterise British cinema.

None of this new crop displays a desire to be the next Billy Elliot; they might have been made in a world where Billy Elliot had never happened. Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People has a flair and vitality that enable it to transcend its specifically British subject matter without compromise. Joe Tucker's Lava is a purely nasty comedy of the kind people are usually too frightened to make any more (or to exhibit, judging by the paltry number of screens it briefly occupied). Asif Kapadia's The Warrior displays an emotional tenderness that's not overshadowed by the film's visual sweep, while Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger's complexly structured Lawless Heart wears its wit and insight with a lightness of touch from which repeat offenders such as Richard Curtis, Mark Herman and David Kane could learn a good deal. These new films deserve more than the kind of lily-livered praise that has hinged almost exclusively on nationality. Quotes like "the best British film of the year" litter posters and reviews, but these are fine pictures by any country's standards, and it would be a surprise not to find The Warrior or Lawless Heart snugly nestling alongside L'Emploi du temps and Mulholland Dr. in this winter's polls.

It's fitting that a year which began with so many bright upstarts should draw to a close with new work from our most tenacious veterans, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Both All or Nothing and Loach's Sweet Sixteen are sinewy, punishing pictures that retain an air of triumphant encore. Leigh's film in particular, which is not so much set on a South London housing estate as stranded there, distils and intensifies elements from his earlier work. The claustrophobic central location, from which the Stygian voyages of walking-dead cabbie Phil Bassett (Timothy Spall) provide a reprieve that is exclusively theoretical, recalls the concrete maze in Meantime (1983); indeed, if the young reprobates of All or Nothing are its most unconvincing creations, it may be because Leigh, in the earlier film, already provided one of the most eloquent visual metaphors for dead-end delinquency. Once you've seen Gary Oldman rolling around in an iron dustbin, furiously thrashing the inside of his makeshift hamster's wheel, the sight of a bored teenager mutilating himself, as one character does here, is bound to seem redundant.

But in all other respects, All or Nothing wisely exploits its echoes of former work; it wouldn't be stretching a point to see the film as Leigh's Blue Velvet, a potholing expedition into territory previously examined only from the air. The movie is like a more sour remake of Life Is Sweet, departing from a scenario of greater domestic trauma but arriving at the same quietly euphoric denouement. In that 1990 comedy the bulimic daughter of a head chef gorged herself nightly, and allowed herself to be smeared with chocolate spread in afternoon sex sessions. The new picture reheats the food metaphor and loads it on to our laps; not since La Grande Bouffe can popcorn have been so unwise a viewing accompaniment.

Apparently unwilling to acknowledge a deeper bond, the characters communicate primarily through food. The dinner table is the only thing that brings together Phil, his pinch-faced wife Penny (Lesley Manville) and their overweight teenage offspring, the docile Rachel (Alison Garland) and the raging Rory (James Corden) - at least until a near-tragedy transforms a hospital bed into a new meeting place. At the table they silently delve into dinner while the mirthless laugh track on an out-of-shot television seems to mock them. Special reverence is reserved for a multipack of long-lasting burger buns given to Phil in lieu of a fare; in the kitchen of this household nearing the breadline, the mystical offering assumes the aura of a religious relic or a handful of magic beans.

Next door, chirpy single mum Maureen (Ruth Sheen) deploys persistent offers of chips to provoke tidbits of conversation from her surly teenage daughter, who is as thin as a French fry. Meanwhile alcoholic neighbour Carol (played by Marion Bailey, the Essex housewife who turned to the bottle in Meantime) neglects her duties, and the absence of food on the table gradually becomes a symptom of deeper malaise; the last time we glimpse her, she's slipping into a mutually boozy unconsciousness with her bitter husband Ron (Paul Jesson). The symmetry so beloved of Leigh thus manifests itself not only in the siblings' matching names (Rory and Rachel, recalling the twins Nicola and Natalie in Life Is Sweet) but in the various stages of domestic health: Maureen has fought for her happiness, and is still visibly fighting; Phil and Penny are able to replenish their loveless marriage, but only just; for Carol and Ron life has steadily dribbled away.

The film's general bleakness, not dispelled until the last moment, seems both organic, in a way the apocalyptic posturing of Naked (1993) patently wasn't, and also justified by Leigh's quest for hope. Phil hasn't only passed on corpulence to Rory ("He's a big lad," he smiles, almost proudly, when a foreign passenger bluntly asks if the boy is "fat like you?"). He has also bequeathed him complacency; this father may spend his days driving strangers around London's tangle of streets, but there's no sense he's garnering any more experience than his son, who can barely bring himself to budge off the sofa. In another reference to an earlier film Leigh assembles a montage of Phil's fares that recalls a similar sequence in Secrets & Lies (1995) when the subjects of a photographer (Spall again) were collected in a series of brief sketches. The crucial difference this time is that Spall has his back to his clients, and seems scarcely to notice them. That leathery, whiskery face just stares through the windscreen, his droopy eyes neither wanting nor expecting anything other than his grim lot.

But when, in that final scene, Phil at last shares with his family an anecdote about his work, and surrenders a cocked smile, you may want to leap out of the seat in which you have felt imprisoned for two hours, and cheer. In that moment the movie unexpectedly aligns itself with those Mike Leigh films where family unity is fiercely upheld (High Hopes, 1988; Life Is Sweet; Secrets & Lies) rather than forfeited for art (Topsy-Turvy, 1999) or honour (Meantime; Naked).

All or Nothing is a grown-up film, full of searching, searing episodes. Loach's picture is ultimately the more despairing of the two, but conversely it's the breezier to watch. For anyone who scoffed at the video blurb for My Name Is Joe, which hysterically trumpeted the film-maker as a better action director than John Woo, Sweet Sixteen offers a partial reprimand. Not that the new film features any two-handed gun action, but it's snappily paced and the suspense is expertly handled. When violence swoops down, it's no less shocking for being fumbled or curtailed - one sequence, in which the 15-year-old Greenock lad Liam (Martin Compston) is pressganged by local crimelords into performing an execution, has a grubby, heightened realism worthy of Scorsese's Mean Streets, and in its ambush on our complacency easily matches the much admired loan-shark scene in Raining Stones (1993).

The narrative is essentially weepie-of-the-week stuff (boy saves pocket money to ensure his jailbird mum has a new home when she's released) that is insulated against corniness by some gritty specifics (boy earns the dough by dealing smack) - but then that's something at which Loach excels. One of the sweetest moments comes when Liam is preparing a tape to send to his mother in prison. He records the sentimental Pretenders song 'I'll Stand by You', and Loach allows the track to spill over on to subsequent shots, all the while retaining the cassette's low-fi sound quality to remind us that this is a boy's message to his mother rather than a manipulative film-maker's assault on his audience's tear ducts. Magically - and few directors could get away with this - the trick imposes just enough distance for the viewer to accommodate a lump in the throat without feeling like a sucker.

Frankly, it's refreshing that Loach can be bothered to sublimate cinema's natural tendency towards manipulation - something about which he has always seemed faintly embarrassed. He's known chiefly as a political film-maker, but his best films eradicate all distinctions between the personal and the political. The well-intentioned though disastrous choice Liam makes - to deal drugs, and therefore risk his own future, in order to free his mother from a pernicious lover in whose grasp she clearly wishes to remain - may have implicit political resonance, but the film's focus is kept tightly on the psychological drama in hand.

We know from one of the picture's earliest scenes that the relationship between mother and son is doomed. On a prison visit Liam is forced by his stepfather and grandfather to conceal drugs in his mouth, and pass them to his mother in a kiss. Across the table from her, he stands his ground and refuses. This most primal union is corrupted before the film has even begun; the maternal kiss has been poisoned, and the only way for the boy to save his mother is for him to reject that symbol of love. From the comfort of the cinema stalls we know too that Liam's only chance of salvation is to reject his mother along with her kiss. The wonder of Sweet Sixteen - as with Kes (1969), The Gamekeeper (1980) and My Name Is Joe (1998) before it - lies in its ability to make us simultaneously aware of Liam's kamikaze bent, while never doubting that, in his shoes, we would have taken the same self-destructive steps towards the promise of contentment.

All or Nothing and Sweet Sixteen would seem uncompromising in any year, but context undoubtedly makes their achievements look even more significant. The most pressing concern is that the Miramaxation of what was formerly known as independent cinema has nurtured a desperation in film-makers to be placatory. New directors are bred to see the value in the coveted bums-on-seats, but not in less measured responses - throwing tomatoes at the screen, say, or stomping out of the cinema in a blind rage. In other words, cinema has become a safe place, and British cinema something of a franchise where certain names can engender in audiences those same feelings of comfort that a fast-food junkie experiences on glimpsing that big yellow 'M'. It's not a climate in which you could imagine the fostering of modern equivalents to former enfants terribles - a young counterpart to Peter Greenaway would be unlikely to get The Draughtsman's Contract made today, let alone The Baby of Mâcon; and despite the sporadic work of such audacious directors as Patrick Keiller and Andrew Kötting, there can hardly be much likelihood that we'll see a babyfaced Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell or Derek Jarman any time soon. As Tilda Swinton wrote recently of the latter: "There's nothing one-eighth as mad, bad and downright spiritualised being made down here these days this side of Beat Takeshi."

And she's right. There isn't. Not yet. But we might recall 2002 as the year that British films remembered how to be abrasive and bad mannered. Alongside the properly biting comic chill of Joe Tucker's Lava and Paul Tickell's Christie Malry's Own Double Entry is the latest collaboration between director Billie Eltringham and writer Simon Beaufoy. This Is Not a Love Song might reasonably be retitled This Is Not The Full Monty, since the image that bookends the film - a body being heaved into a river - carries a pleasing symbolic resonance consistent with Beaufoy's attempts to shake off the 1997 movie. He tried unsuccessfully to heave all memories of that candyfloss comedy overboard with The Darkest Light (1999, which he co-directed with Eltringham), but it's only in This Is Not a Love Song that this act of ritual sacrifice feels effective rather than affected.

The new picture is a gruelling thriller about two petty crooks who are hounded through woodlands after one of them accidentally kills a farmer's daughter. It impresses more through the carefully sprung surprises in Beaufoy's script - the acts of tenderness between the hunted men, or the cruel precision of the plot - than through the direction, which draws at length from a jamboree bag of visual gimmicks. But the film has its heart in the right place - or, from a commercial perspective, the wrong place, since it gives short shrift to such trifles as audience empathy, backstory and closure, becoming through their absence a kind of Pinteresque Southern Comfort. What stayed with me longer than the film itself was the thought that perhaps this is what Beaufoy was writing on his laptop by the LA pool in that Syntegra ad; suddenly that image of him seemed subversive rather than smug, and his attempts to wriggle out from under the cherished memory of his biggest success acquired a new nobility.

This Is Not a Love Song is not the saviour of the British film industry, but in its single-mindedness it does prove that there are film-makers for whom a five-star review in the tabloid press and a special item on the 6 o'clock news are way down the list of priorities. The reason international hits like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot can generate so much dread is often due less to the films themselves - which, whatever their flaws, at least drew on original or unlikely flavours - than to the knowledge that for every one that makes it big there will be a score of imitations hankering after the same success.

In a review of Fever Pitch back in 1996 Adam Mars-Jones compared the British film industry to that movie's subject, Arsenal FC, observing that both were prone to "the compulsive repetition of stupid mistakes". Both forces have come back from the dead this year. The question of whether either Arsenal or British cinema can cling to their present rude health seems almost impertinent in the light of such clear-headed glories. Can't we just enjoy it while it lasts?

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012