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This is the Life?

A master of British working-class psychodrama reveals a sentimental faith in healing.

Alan A. Stone

After laboring in relative obscurity for nearly three decades, English writer-director Mike Leigh has suddenly become an international succès d'estime. His stock began to climb with Naked, for which he won best director at Cannes. With Secrets & Lies, which took this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes and opened the New York Film Festival, it is soaring.

Has Leigh changed or have the critics finally caught up with him? The answer seems to be a bit of both.

Leigh's earlier films won some obscure prizes and earned him little general recognition. His problem was part subject matter, part style. Leigh is obsessed with the British class system-particularly with the English proletariat, whose members survive one rung up from the dole. He studies them with a determined, nearly clinical attention. But the portrayals are obscure to non-English viewers, who often find it hard to understand the accents and get past the seeming eccentricities to the universal that makes art. These are English films that need American subtitles.

Leigh's human fascinations are not obviously Marxist or political. Instead, his films have the aesthetic quality of Lucien Freud's paintings-a brutal realism that can be stunning but is rarely beautiful. They are the antithesis of the critically acclaimed Merchant-Ivory genre, which celebrates the England of the past and strokes the snobbish sensibilities of American Anglophiles. Leigh's England is a defeated nation of "real" people, most of them poor, whom Mrs. Thatcher has sent into the 21st century without hope and with a standard of living near the bottom of the European barrel.

Moreover, Leigh's characters are not especially likable. Naked begins with the protagonist (David Thewlis) raping a woman in an alleyway in one of northern England's dying cities. Followed by her screams of revenge, he takes off for London, where he scrounges off people to survive. When we last see this mesmerizing and soulless character, he is limping away from an apartment with money stolen from a woman who had earned it at the cost of great personal indignities. Such is the Hobbesian bleakness of Leigh's subject matter.

Leigh's method of filmmaking gives his realism a special intensity. Conventionally described as a writer-director, he operates more as a psychological guru. Starting from a few basic premises, he works with his actors to get them to improvise their characters.

Modern explorers of the mind/brain who map the emotional circuits will tell you that actors come in two basic types: the Oliviers, who learn their lines and find a way to simulate appropriate emotions, and the "method" actors, who find some emotional experience within and then recreate a real emotion in the performance. In contrast to both, Leigh's actors get neither script nor role. His overriding objective is to make his characters real. To that end, he moves his actors to invent characters who will speak lines not yet written down-lines that belong to the actor's own emotional life. This collaborative effort bears very little resemblance to the traditional creation of a literary text.

Leigh claimed recently that his method is much like Charlie Chaplin's in his silent films. But Chaplin's actors always played the same stock characters; Leigh spends months working to help his actors find a new acting identity within themselves. The result goes beyond Stanislavsky to authentic psychodrama, as actor and character merge.

Leigh may not welcome the comparison, but he is a direct descendant of J. L. Moreno, the self-proclaimed founder of psychodrama. Moreno had the look of a mountebank, but anyone who witnessed his performances knew he had a touch of genius. He would come out before an audience and do his version of a "warm-up." Anything that came to his mind came out of his mouth-he was an advocate of spontaneity as mental health. He would often describe to his audience how he began as the director of the "living theater"-how each night the actors would improvise a play based on the latest headlines in the Vienna newspapers. An actor involved in a play about a Jack the Ripper-type rapist and serial killer came to him and described how playing the role was seriously affecting his personal and sexual life. This emotional connection between actor and role may now seem almost banal, but it struck Moreno like a bolt of lightning. He had the idea of making the process work the other way by having "patients" act out their personal problems on the stage as a form of psychotherapy: thus the name "psychodrama."

Moreno, who gave demonstrations in clinical psychology departments at major universities all over America, would invite members of his audience to come up on the platform to confront some episode in their lives and master it. Indeed, they could have a go at making that moment come out differently. The purpose of Moreno's warm-up was to get people to act out a personal problem of their own in front of the rest of the audience. One of his most intriguing techniques was to have an assistant who would stand behind the protagonist and say what the person was really feeling and thinking.

Psychodrama proved to be a powerful method and Moreno was a crafty director-manipulator. He scoffed at privacy and confidentiality: you could only be healed if you gave up your secrets and lies. The mixture of theater and psychotherapy regularly took the person who volunteered much further than he expected to go in the way of emotional disclosure, self-revelation, and self-discovery.

Mike Leigh seems to be more Moreno-guru than writer-director. He helps his actors to dig into themselves and find a character for his film. This process may not be what every actor wants, but many actors are trying to find ways to bring out new emotional depths in themselves, and Leigh is midwife to this creativity. That he delivers is attested by the fact that David Thewlis earned best actor at Cannes for Naked and Brenda Blethyn best actress for Secrets & Lies. Indeed, one could argue that Thewlis' extraordinary performance as a highly educated but down-and-out psychopath raised the theatrical level of Naked so high that it simply could not be ignored by important critics. They liked it despite Leigh's bleak horizons and almost-cruel depictions-an earlier film, Life is Sweet, featured an anorexic-bulimic young woman whose bingeing and vomiting provided a dissonant counterpoint to her father's occupation as a chef.

But the cruelty in such a depiction is like the cruelty of Lucien Freud's nudes, which allow us to see nakedness in a new way: if one turns away from them thinking they are abusing their subjects, one has simply missed the point. Leigh is in a way even more obsessive than Freud. He keeps trying to capture what must be ineffable-that is, psychological reality.

Critics who know Leigh's work well feel that in Secrets & Lies he has changed. His characters have hope and, as one critic wrote, a "new philosophy of positive emotion." That new philosophy seems to come from embracing both Moreno's method and his theory that people and families can be healed if they will just give up their secrets and lies. Given the way Leigh works, it is difficult to know for sure whom to credit for this change. But one suspects it was one of the basic premises for Secrets & Lies. In his earlier films, Leigh's method of psychodrama enabled actors to produce striking vignettes of character; he broke a lot of eggs, but didn't make an omelet. The premise of healing through giving up secrets and lies produces a scene that unifies the characters and leads to a more hopeful resolution.

Leigh's other premise for Secrets & Lies also goes beyond his usually circumscribed limits of class in contemporary England and touches on race and interracialism, shared preoccupations of western consciousness. Leigh brilliantly plays the class card against the race card. At the heart of his story is Hortense, a young professional Black woman in London, adopted at birth by Black parents, who decides to search for her biological mother and discovers that she is one of Leigh's bottom-of-the-barrel Whites. This interracial plot line is by no means particularly English. One can imagine it as the subject of an Oprah Winfrey television show. In fact, a week before Leigh's film opened in Boston, the local news was filled with stories about the reunion of just such a daughter and her birth mother-an Irish Catholic woman with two small children who had been raped in the early 1960s by a Black man. Hortense never finds out about her biological father or how she was conceived. Secrets & Lies keeps that secret while holding nothing else back.

This, then, is another film about roots, identity, and family, but because of the way it was created, it unfolds like a happening-though, unlike Naked, it has a sense of plot and structure, built around Hortense's search and discovery. She is the catalyst who brings to light all the secrets and lies. The amazing performance of Brenda Blethyn as the birth mother, Cynthia Rose, makes the film overflow with raw emotion. The nakedness of her character generates tears of sympathy and anxious laughter: when acting is that real, the pleasant anonymity of being a member of the audience is replaced by the painfully embarrassing feeling of being a hapless witness to someone's shame. That is the "real" at which Leigh always aims; understandably, it is not everyone's cup of tea. But in this film he cushions it with acts of redeeming kindness.

Leigh's instinctive decision to play class and race off one another frames these acts of kindness as magnanimous rather than condescending. Instead of looking down the social class ladder, the audience is brought into the film and gets its perspective from Hortense, a together young woman, competent in her profession (she's an optometrist), comfortable and cautious in her lifestyle. Leigh is a psychodramatist, but he is also a filmmaker, and his opening gambit is a winner. He brings his (mostly White) audience into his film by showing us Hortense in all of her good- natured vulnerability.

We first meet Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in the opening scene-a grave-side funeral service. The hymn-singing mourners are as off-key as any White congregation. They are, however, West Indian Blacks, identifiably middle-class in their dress and appearance. The camera pans their faces and settles briefly on Hortense as tears well up in her eyes and roll down her cheeks. She seems the only one really weeping. Leigh's alchemy seems to have completely transformed Jean-Baptiste into Hortense, a lonely woman who is at loose ends after the unexpected death of her adoptive mother. Her adoptive father died years before and she is not close to her much-older brothers, the natural children of her adoptive parents. Grief brings regret about missed opportunities for giving and receiving love, along with the recognition that certain questions that might have been asked can never be answered; she will never get to know her mother better. These feelings prompt Hortense's search and the surprising reunion with her White birth mother.

As anybody who has witnessed a search for biological parents knows, adopted children have a special sensibility about family secrets and lies. Leigh pulls out all the stops to get his audience to empathize with Hortense. We see her gently reassuring a little White girl with buckteeth and freckles as she fits her for glasses. We listen in as a Black friend tells her about a crazy one-night stand. Hortense is tolerant, asks if her friend really enjoyed herself, and reminds her about using condoms. Two are safer, she suggests, one put on over the other. Her friend confides that they used two, one after the other, and they giggle together. Unmistakably good, decent, and unselfish, Hortense is the kind of daughter any parent would love. But while Hortense's search for her birth mother is convincing, her noblesse-oblige in taking on the burdens of healing Cynthia's misery seems less real.

Cynthia has none of Hortense's refinement. If life is a moral adventure, she seems headed for an indecent ending. Beaten down by adversity and her own mistakes, she lives with Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), her 21-year-old illegitimate daughter made ugly by a constant scowl. Though desperate for love, mother and daughter are unable to acknowledge it. They are locked into one of those family cold wars where every word uttered, no matter where it is aimed, lands on an open wound. They are archetypal Mike Leigh-one hard-working rung up from the dole, poorly educated, culturally limited.

Cynthia Rose's life is almost unimaginably empty. She labors in a corrugated box factory at a task a robot could perform, while her daughter "works for the council," a euphemism for sweeping the streets. Cynthia's glass is always at hand, seemingly her only sure companion and comfort. Advancing into middle age, she is ruined, lonely, and miserable, but still, in her uncomprehending vanity, wearing the provocative clothing-now ill-fitting and pathetic-that years earlier turned men's heads. She seems to have learned nothing from her predicament except to pretend it does not exist. Although Leigh's camera is unsparing, we see that there is something left of her pretty face; and in one scene she stands in front of the mirror and suddenly, drawn by a smoldering passion, puts her hands to her breasts as if to relive a voluptuous memory from her past.

Leigh's actors seem to draw their characters straight from psychiatric textbooks; their eccentricities are clinically real. Blethyn's Cynthia is a classic case history of loss, missed opportunities, sexual irresponsibility, and depression. Her mother died when she was not yet a teenager, leaving her to care for her younger brother and father. She took on her mother's role without her mother's guidance and lost her own chance for independent identity. She had both children out of wedlock, Hortense when she was only sixteen and Roxanne when she was 21. She gave Hortense away at birth without looking at her and never knowing she was Black. She brought up Roxanne, struggling as a single mother, never telling her about her biological father and sister. Life and love have now passed her by and she still lives in the same family flat where she replaced her mother. Her father is dead and her brother, Maurice, has married a woman who considers Cynthia beneath her. When Hortense, the secret of her past, looks her up and calls on the phone, it seems like Cynthia's final humiliation. Yet when they meet, it gradually dawns on Cynthia that out of her shame-filled secret has come someone who can fill the emptiness of her life and make her proud to be a mother. Cynthia's motivations are more transparent than Hortense's and if Leigh's goal is to make reality visible here, he is less successful.

All of the actors in the film give stunning performances, but Jean-Baptiste as Hortense has a biological obstacle to overcome. The offspring of the first pairing of an African and a Caucasian gets half his or her genetic racial characteristics from each parent. Leigh chose to ignore that reality in casting Jean-Baptiste for the part. In this respect, the maudlin truth on local television was more convincing than the film. When that aging white woman from Boston stood beside her black daughter, one could see the resemblance and how their biological connection transcended the boundaries of racial difference. Not so with Hortense and her mother. Jean-Baptiste seems to recognize this limitation; her face has all the practiced mobility and range of expressions of a mime. As Hortense ministers to her dysfunctional new White family, her face seems to say, "What am I doing here?"

Hortense's more convincing counterpart in healing is Cynthia's brother Maurice (Timothy Spall), a photographer. A parade of human beings pose for Maurice's camera, but in a flash of Leigh's artistry, each is a revelation of humanity. Maurice refutes the critics' charge that Leigh is cruel to his characters. As each of Maurice's subjects sits for him, he must decide what face he will show to the world. This, in microcosm, is Leigh's vocation. Maurice cares deeply about what he is doing; he is giving, not taking from these people. Even when he tricks them into smiling, he means it as a gift. And Maurice, like everyone else in film, wants love-and is eventually able to ask for it.

Maurice is inescapably decent and it is only his loyalty to his wife, Monica, made miserable by her inability to bear children, that has kept him away from Cynthia and Roxanne. But Maurice convinces his wife that they should give a party to celebrate Roxanne's twenty-first birthday. Cynthia brings Hortense along in the guise of a new friend, and then ruins Roxanne's big day by revealing that Hortense is her daughter. Cynthia is a victim, not a healer, and her revelation is an act of resentment. As psychodrama becomes nightmare, Maurice saves the day, revealing the secret of his and Monica's childlessness. Family reconciliation and love follow, as Maurice's assistant, in tears, says "I wish I had a father like you" to the childless Maurice.

Amen to that, but is this reality? Do family conflicts dissolve and heal in one miraculous moment? At least for this film, Leigh does not retreat from that conclusion. In a final scene in Cynthia's back yard, Hortense and Roxanne tentatively explore the possibility of sisterhood, Roxanne promising to take Hortense to her pub and introduce her as her sister. The sentimental unreality of that scene is underlined when Cynthia comes out to serve tea and observes to her two daughters, "This is the life."

Hortense is of course the miracle of that life and of this whole family. Perhaps that is Leigh's problem-his psychological alchemy can transform actors into real people, but only a literary imagination can transform real people into miracles.

Originally published in the December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review

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