Director’s Chair Introduction: Mike Leigh

by Tony Cogan · July 12, 2021 · Director's Chair · No Comments

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Deadline: 7th August 2021

Hello everyone, it’s time to reveal who the featured director for July will be and this month I’ve decided to go with Mike Leigh.

Now Leigh got his start on the stage, working on plays at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company, adapting one of his plays, Bleak Moments, to the screen. The critical success of Bleak Moments got Leigh on the BBC’s radar and he subsequently moved into TV working on television plays for the BBC’s Play for Today series, which also included early work by directors including Ken Loach and Mike Newell. Two of Leigh’s plays, Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party, being included in the BFI’s list of the top 100 British TV programmes they published in 2000.

Leigh moved into film full time in 1988, setting up production company Thin Man Films to do so, with High Hopes, which was also the start of Leigh’s focus on the working class in his films, with his TV plays being more focused on satirising the middle class. Leigh followed this up with Life is Sweet, which earned further acclaim for Leigh, being nominated for Best International Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

With Leigh’s next film, Naked, he had his first success at the Cannes Film Festival, with it winning Best Director and Best Actor at the festival, with it also being nominated for Best British Film at the BAFTAs. Leigh had further success after Naked with his follow up film, Secrets and Lies, which won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 5 Oscars and 7 BAFTAs, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, winning 3 BAFTAs. Secrets and Lies also received positive pickets, which Leigh and actress Brenda Blethyn, attended, raising awareness on sealed birth records. After the successes of Naked and Secrets and Lies, Leigh had a moderate success with Career Girls which, whilst receiving positive reviews, did not see the same level of acclaim as his previous two films.

Leigh’s next film ended up being one of his more elaborate and commercially successful with Topsy-Turvey, focusing on Gilbert and Sullivan during the writing of The Mikado. Upon release, the film was praised for its recreation of Victorian London and the stage practices of the time, with it winning the Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup, along with being nominated for Best Director and Best Art Direction.

Leigh’s next big success came in 2004 with Vera Drake, which ended up being nominated for 11 BAFTAs and 3 Oscars, winning the BAFTAs for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Costume Design. There was a difficulty in the nomination for Best Original Screenplay as Leigh’s style made it so Vera Drake did not have a traditional screenplay. The film was reliant on heavy improvisation and rehearsals, with a lot of the film being retroscripted. For example, of the main cast only Imelda Staunton knew the film was about abortion and none of the cast, including Staunton, knew that her character was going to be arrested until the actors playing the police knocked on the door used for rehearsals. Leigh has used this kind of technique throughout his filmography, believing it to create the most realistic environment for his films.

After the success of Vera Drake, Leigh did some work for the National Theatre before returning to film with Happy-Go-Lucky, which was highly acclaimed, particularly for the lead performance from Sally Hawkins, which led to her being nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress. After this, Leigh went on to direct Another Year, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, and Mr Turner, a biopic of artist JMW Turner, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, with Timothy Spall winning the award for Best Actor at the festival. Whilst the film did receive 4 Oscar nominations, there was some surprise that Timothy Spall was not nominated for Best Actor, with Spall receiving the Kermode Award for Best Actor, alongside David Oyelowo for Selma, for the best performances not nominated for the Oscar.

Leigh’s most recent film was Peterloo, a film depicting the massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819. The film was notable for being the first film to premiere at the London Film Festival outside of London. Instead it premiered at Home in Manchester, a few minutes away from the site of the massacre. The film ended up receiving mixed reviews upon release and is one of the rare instances where one of Leigh’s films was not nominated for any BAFTAs, which was noted in The Guardian as being a rare failure for Film4.

As a reminder, the films of Leigh’s you can cover are listed below.

  • Bleak Moments
  • Meantime
  • High Hopes
  • Life is Sweet
  • Naked
  • Secrets and Lies
  • Career Girls
  • Topsy-Turvey
  • All or Nothing
  • Vera Drake
  • Happy-Go-Lucky
  • Another Year
  • Mr Turner
  • Peterloo

I look forward to reading whatever you send me.

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