Midway through Mike Leigh’s 1988 film High Hopes, a leftist couple visits Karl Marx’s tomb in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Cyril Bender is a 35-year-old messenger suffering from political disenchantment; Shirley is his equanimous, green-thumbed girlfriend. Gazing at Marx’s bust, Cyril muses on his importance to Britain’s welfare state, while Shirley notes the bathos of his enlarged forehead, looming over the graves of his family.
If Shirley’s comment speaks volumes, it’s because she and Cyril clash on how to live an ideologically coherent yet happy and fulfilled life. Shirley wants children; Cyril scorns the idea as bourgeois, but also because “no one gives a shit what sort of world kids are being born into.” Cyril’s argument isn’t wrong: He and Shirley entered adulthood in the 1960s, only to witness the onslaught of draconian Thatcherite policies that helped dismantle Britain’s social democracy in the 1980s.
High Hopes is only one of several Mike Leigh films that pair the irredeemably dark and despairing with moments of wry banter and acute social observation. His 1983 Meantime, about a family on the dole and its angry progeny, overflows with violent energy yet crisply skewers the wealthy classes for their patronizing attitudes. In his 1993 Naked, in which an intellectually prodigious young drifter spirals into misanthropic degradation, the protagonist’s virulent rants would be unbearable if it weren’t for his mordant wit.
Class and its experience—not just by working-class people but middle-class people as well—has long been at the center of Leigh’s work. Born into a middle-class family—his father was a doctor, his mother a midwife—Leigh grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Salford, outside Manchester, and was exposed to the many different valences of class from an early age. His years in London only clarified this awareness, and many of his films capture the daily struggles of the poor amid despair and occasional triumphs. Leigh often cites the painter George Grosz to define his mix of vexatious semi-naturalism and darkly humorous grotesque, and much like Grosz, there is also a deep sense of commitment underlying his work. As Leigh returns to it again and again in his films, class is not just a matter of money alone but also the social distance that breeds callousness and defines society’s bitter divisions. High Hopes offers an account of what happens when that distance becomes too great, when all that is left is the bitter aftertaste that comes from recognizing that no matter how modest one’s “high hopes” are, they are almost always an impossibility.
A recent retrospective of Leigh’s films at New York City’s Film at Lincoln Center bears out this duality between despair and hope. From Meantime and Naked to High Hopes and Secrets & Lives (1996) or the more recent Another Year (2010), Leigh is often concerned with the aftermath of crushed ideals. In his films, the middle and upper classes succumb to self-absorption, while working-class families, even the most embattled, stick together in order to survive—and no one is ever all that happy. Among Leigh’s varied cast of male types, some lash out furiously, as in Meantime and Naked, while others resort to sardonic jabs, as in High Hopes, and still others dissociate completely, as in All or Nothing (2002). Meanwhile, the female characters—no mere sidekicks to men and their hobbled ambitions or anti-establishment rage—anchor many of Leigh’s films in remarkable ways. From comedies such as Life Is Sweet (1990) to the historical epic Peterloo (2018), Leigh is preoccupied with how women, and particularly working-class women, create alternate societies of care in the midst of the carelessness and cruelty of capitalist society. Shirley in High Hopes and Vera in Vera Drake (2004) embody such a fierce pragmatism honed by adversity. Not versed in theories of social justice, they nevertheless incarnate Marx’s conviction that to change the world, ideas must be put into practice, and their experiences underscore the fact that societies don’t sufficiently value nurture as work—work that is every bit as important as intellectual labor. If Leigh’s Britain looks so bleakly Dickensian, it’s because for many of these women, gender equality, like class equality, remains stubbornly elusive.
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High Hopes opens paradoxically with a more congenial picture of Britain. A young man from a small town in Hackney arrives at London’s King’s Cross underground station. Not knowing anyone in the city except his sister, whose whereabouts he can’t pinpoint, the young man seeks Cyril’s help with directions. Cyril invites him over, and he ends up staying the night. The couple’s camaraderie and humoring of the young man, whom they regard as a loveable, hapless yokel, are full of Good Samaritan vibes. But the scene turns out to be a red herring: The movie’s central plot actually revolves around an entirely different city block, where Mrs. Bender, Cyril’s widowed mother, lives in a two-story council house—the last such holdout in an area gentrified by yuppies. In an acerbic scene, after visiting Mrs. Bender, Cyril and Shirley inspect the neighbors’ pristinely painted French windows and preened planters, which sharply contrast with the sooty, drab look of Mrs. Bender’s house. The couple poke fun at the neighbors’ never actually being home and peek through a mailbox slot to marvel voyeuristically at the place’s central heating and cooling. “Is this a home?” Shirley joshes. Cyril wisecracks, “It’s a capital investment.”
The distance between Mrs. Bender and her yuppie neighbors, Rupert and Laetitia, comes into sharp relief when the older woman locks herself out of her house one day. She’s reluctantly let into Rupert and Laetitia’s home, lectured by them on her house’s marketability, and then ignored. By the time Cyril arrives, Rupert’s so annoyed by having missed an opera and Cyril’s tough biker talk that he snarks, “What made this country great was ‘A place for everyone, and everyone in his place.’” It reeks of Brexit-like ressentiment and prompts Cyril to call him a fascist.
Highbrow snobs aren’t the only ones that Leigh lampoons in the film. Cyril’s sister, Valerie, is married to a philandering, chauvinist used-car dealer; their house is a monstrous twin of Rupert and Laetitia’s place. Subdued pastels morph into garish tones and clashing patterns, with a potpourri of objects that act as vapid, purely decorative symbols of worldliness: the glass chess set that Valerie can’t play but won’t let anyone else touch and a series of ugly totemic sculptures. Valerie throws her mother a 70th-birthday party, but when Cyril and Shirley show up, Valerie insists on telling the pair what her mother’s tastes are and dismisses their birthday gift for her, which only heightens the existing tensions. But Valerie’s condescension acquires an even sharper and peculiar edge when it is placed in the context of her own marital unhappiness.
Leigh’s most troubled women seem to always carry their class on their sleeves, even if they wish they could escape it. Like Valerie, Cynthia in Secrets & Lies is also insecure. A single mom who gave up her first baby, Hortense, for adoption, she can’t stop apologizing for being a disappointment. Now an adult, Hortense tries to help Cynthia to stop seeing her choices or her modest means as signs of personal failure, but Cynthia never fully seems to shake off her sense of inferiority. In Another Year, whose bonhomie seems light-years away from High Hopes’ politically edged anger, Mary, a boozy chatterbox secretary, visits her friends Gerri and Tom, only to listen mutely as her two middle-class friends bandy anecdotes about their frequent travels abroad. Mary is equally distressed: Even if she is not filled with crippling self-doubt like Cynthia, the dramedy of her new car constantly breaking down—leading to financial distress rather than the liberating motility she craves—offers yet another example of a woman who feels socially inadequate and diminished by her lack of means. Class and gender, for Leigh, are never far apart but instead are intricately entwined.
By the end of High Hopes, the good life that Cyril and Shirley yearn for finally comes into view—or at least glimmers of it. Cyril comes around to the possibility of becoming a father. But even then, Leigh frames marital bliss as dependent on financial means as much as love. The couple’s spare bedroom is tiny, but it’ll do for a nursery. It’s vastly more than their unemployed militant friend Suzy can afford—a lack that contributed to her decision to have an abortion. Feeling rich or poor, then, whether within or outside one’s class, is always a result of comparing ourselves to others. In Leigh’s films, it is usually women who most sharply recognize this essential truth.
Class is also central to another of the films featured in the Lincoln Center retrospective: Vera Drake. Leigh’s somber social drama was based on his research on imprisoned abortionists. Set in London in 1950, it follows the eponymous Vera, a middle-age cleaning woman who, when not working for rich families, helps women end their unwanted pregnancies. Just as Leigh’s keen sense of London’s geography and material detail drove home the social chasm between the lower and middle classes in High Hopes, so does his supreme feel for rhythm and movement accentuate the degree to which we experience Vera’s inducements of miscarriage as part of her tireless caring for others. From the moment we see her, Vera’s work never ceases. She dusts and polishes her employers’ residences. She visits the infirm and cares for her ailing mother. She then gets home to cook for her family. Vera slips into the rooms of mostly lower-class women with the same thrumming élan and maternal grace. She sets a kettle on, mixes soapy water, and pumps it into a woman’s uterus to, in a day or two, start vaginal bleeding. While risky—even potentially fatal, as the movie demonstrates—women turned to this remedy widely in Britain as well as in the pre–Roe v. Wade United States.
Leigh was prompted to make Vera Drake by his recollections of a time when many working-class women were forced to resort to these and other desperate measures for reproductive care—a frightening reality that’s now again upon us. Class, Leigh reminds us, often determined a women’s access to various forms of reproductive care, no matter if they were or were not legal. In the film, unbeknownst to Vera, when her employer’s daughter Susan is raped on a date, she seeks out top-notch obstetric care in a private clinic to have an abortion. Susan returns to her coddled life looking slightly pale but poised, knowing that her secret pregnancy needn’t define her. Yet for the many women Vera helps, the risks are far graver.
The ways in which working-class women are bonded together by these risks is a theme not only in Vera Drake but in a great number of Leigh’s films: Naked, High Hopes and Secrets & Lies, as well as Life Is Sweet, Career Girls, All or Nothing, and Happy-Go-Lucky. In each, women share their dismay at scant contraception options, unwanted pregnancies, abortion stories, and men’s failure to be allies, but they are also divided by their social and economic positions. In Career Girls, the clash of class backgrounds for two young women matures into an unexpected and enduring friendship. The solidarity of working-class women who share the burdens of mothering is particularly intense, as in All or Nothing. But class divides also drive a wedge between women, as in Secrets & Lies, when Cynthia’s wealthier middle-class sister-in-law scolds her for playing a victim.
In the case of Vera, the bond of solidarity that brings her to the aid of other women is personal as well as class-based. Vera also had an abortion and sees her care as a form of repayment for another woman’s kindness. But the moral as well as legal risk for her is considerable, too: When a young woman nearly dies after a procedure, Vera is put on trial, charged under the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861—a law that banned abortion in England, Scotland, and Wales until 1967, and in Ireland until 2018.
Vera’s public shaming divides her family. Her sister-in-law turns against her, her sheltered son is outraged, and the film ends with a tenebrous tableau: Instead of Vera’s bustle and buoyant humming, a catacomb-like stillness reigns at the Drakes’ family table as they eat a meal together after Vera is sentenced to prison. There’s no joy without Vera, just as, for the women she helps, there’s no justice, or hope, in a man’s world.
If there’s a trickle of hope in High Hopes, it’s in Cyril and Shirley’s enduring love and mutual respect. Cyril is principled and vocal, but in the film’s second half, Shirley emerges as a guide and anchor. In fact, with Shirley—thanks in part to the remarkable charisma of actress Ruth Sheen—Leigh created his most memorable portrait of a working-class woman whose complexity transcends the mere sum of her parts. Though Cyril’s more bookish, or at least is seemingly more bookish—he rolls his joints on a worn copy of Lenin for Beginners—Shirley isn’t just a nurturer. She doesn’t embrace politics with the same militant feistiness as Cyril, but she is no less attentive to the questions of social justice and to the vulnerability of those on society’s fringes. When Cyril, for instance, mocks the inefficacy of their friend Suzy’s wide-eyed activism, Shirley instead commiserates, recognizing her friend’s financial and psychological frailty as driving it.
The satirical vignette at Marx’s tomb further illustrates the couple’s differences. As Cyril admires the imposing bust—the sharply angled camera comically looking up Marx’s nose—and dwells on the past, Shirley notes the cemetery’s lack of upkeep, which highlights her main concern for the present. Even so, Cyril swipes at Shirley for not caring about historical injustices, and the tensions between them finally bubble up. At home, when Cyril bitterly accuses women of trading in their social consciousness to have babies, Shirley homes in on his melancholia as a defense mechanism, one that paradoxically paralyzes him. In a testament to their enduring love, they’ve healed their rift by the final cathartic scene: After the disastrous birthday party, Shirley, Cyril, and Mrs. Bender ascend to the roof of Shirley and Cyril’s apartment building, where Shirley proudly shows off her tiny rooftop garden. The scene is punctuated by tenderness as Shirley and Cyril point out to the awed Mrs. Bender the high points in London’s sprawling panorama. At first glance, the sequence may seem merely to suggest that if our hopes are dashed, we can at least tend to our own gardens. But there’s a sense that Shirley’s care and pragmatism don’t just sustain her garden or family—they’re needed to heal society, too. And the vista which so bewilders and delights Mrs. Bender becomes a metaphor not only for dramatic change but also a belief in a common future. The distance between us may not appear bridgeable in a Mike Leigh film, but that is not to say it couldn’t happen off-screen.