“You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelette stinks.” – Johnny (David Thewlis, Naked).
Miserablism is nothing new to the cinema of Britain. Look back to the 1960’s and Ken Loach’s Kes, the tale of Billy Casper (David Bradley) whose freedom from a life of abusive repression takes the form of a beautiful kestrel. I won’t spoil the end of the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but lets just say that hope and freedom, as in all of Loach’s films, is more of an ideal than a reality. The same can be said of a surreal sequence from Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Glasgow, 1973 – grimy and grubby streets give way to the drowning of a 12-year-old boy. James (William Eadie) and Kenny (John Miller) are young lads living impoverished lives; their moments of freedom are represented by empty houses and fields of wheat. But the key scene sees Kenny tying a balloon to his pet mouse, Snowball. “Goodbye Snowball” he declares as the mouse floats into the sky. We cut to the sky as the mouse wriggles his way through space, eventually landing on the moon. Soon one mouse turns into two, two to four, four to eight… a colony is made. This is the glimmer of hope that miserablism allows, and Mike Leigh is a connoisseur of the form.
Naked (1993) is one of the neglected masterpieces of the 90s, largely due to its unrelentingly vile lead character, Johnny. An intellectual drifter, Johnny is the human equivalent of rat poison – a misogynist and bully, he has run from Manchester to London after raping a young girl, and fearing the consequences. Fiercely opinionated, he infects every place he enters, injecting himself into the bloodstream of low lives of a heaving dystopia. Evenings are spent traversing the bleak streets of London; presented as a desperate and uninhabitable wasteland of crack heads and perverts. One shining light is security guard Brian (Peter Wight) whose kindness Johnny abuses with another rant on doomed existence and the predicted fate of humanity. But scariest of all is that this monster speaks a truth more prevalent today than ever;
“That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new, as long as it’s new, as long as it flashes and f***in’ bleeps in forty f***in’ different colours. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not f***in’ bored.”
The idea of light and dark; good and evil; has always existed in Mike Leigh’s cinema. Think back to Career Girls (1997), a light-hearted film about two friends reuniting after six years apart. It has the brightest, cleanest visuals of any Leigh film and Annie (Lynda Steadman) is one of the most perky, upbeat characters he has ever written. But there is also a sadness to that film – the idea of some people being stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. A place where you have no ability to help them. And High Hopes (1988), despite the optimistic title, is a film about the feeling of belonging to nobody, not understanding the world and coming to terms with facts of life. Dark and grubby, the streets in that film are photographed through a lens of tear-stained regret. There is a film though, that despite containing a simmering rage, is wholeheartedly positive. That film is called Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and it begins in a bookshop…
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) roams the street-corner seller, perusing the shelves for a book to read her students (she’s a primary school teacher). She pulls out a book and recites the title “The Road to Reality”… a smirk appears across her face as she firmly pushes the book back into it’s place. “Don’t want to be going there.” She laughs.
Poppy is the ying to Johnny’s yang. A ray of sunshine in the lives of everyone she meets, Poppy is the cinematic equivalent of a happy pill. Problems arise in her relationship with volatile driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). “The education system in this country produces left-brained prisoners!” he declares, after tackling Poppy about her choice of career. But with a permanent grin, a laugh and a smile, she always overcomes her problems. Even a late night encounter, which recalls Johnny’s voyage through London’s netherworld, is lit up by her unrelenting optimism. Walking home late, she encounters a rambling tramp (Stanley Townsend), who seems lost, confused and upset. She sits next to him, clearly trembling with fear, but she remains brave. In the face of the unknown she proposes a smile. It’s an utter joy to watch. But is all as it seems?
There are some who say that Poppy meets the day with a laugh and a smile to mask the drab, dull, day-to-day reality that is her life. A wink and a smile is her self-medication; escapism from loneliness. I’m not totally on board with the theory, but it would explain why she displays such patience and empathy for both the tramp and Scott, who does nothing but abuse her. Her optimism does, eventually, become harmful. Scott begins to become infatuated with her, believing her positive attitude, high heels and daft jokes to be method of flirtation. In the films best scene he explodes with rage and confronts her with his feelings. It’s made more powerful and interesting by the fact that Scott, here, has the upper hand. Maybe he’s had it all along. Unpretentious and unfussy, he knows who he is and is dedicated to his work. He’s honest about his emotions and confronts Poppy about his feelings. One gets the feeling that Poppy would never do such a thing. She’d make a coy witticism, laugh at herself and move on.
Then there’s Johnny. Undeniably a monster, he is nonetheless captivating from beginning to end. Why? It could be his intelligence, his misanthropy or just for the pleasure of seeing him fall from a great height (the final shot of him hobbling down a grey estate says more than words ever could). But maybe it’s because on some level, we’re on his side. The boredom speech probably rings true for many readers who, like me, are frustrated by the mundanity and repetition of mainstream art and culture. Although he presents it in an uncomfortably intense and violent manner, a lot of what Johnny says is spot-on. He’s had nature explained to him, the living body explained to him, the universe explained to him – and now he needs something else. He’s not bored, because he’s too busy searching for a greater truth. In no way can I argue that he’s an optimist but he is looking for something bigger and more important than him. He doesn’t hide anything, fake anything, or avoid any emotion. He’s a plague, that’s for sure. But look beneath the surface and you’ll find traces of love and hate, happiness and sadness, goodwill and anger, optimism and nihilism in both of these films… each speak an intrinsically linked language.
So, as it’s Christmas Eve, lets end on a note of goodwill. Happy-Go-Lucky ends with Poppy on a boat, reflecting on her experience with Scott. A concerned friend tells her that she should call the police. She responds by simply saying “what good would it do?” Say what you will of Poppy, analyse what you will of Leigh’s cinema, but remember her tolerance and understanding. It may mask a sadness, but a laugh and a smile, as exemplified in the cinema of one of our greatest storytellers, goes an awfully long way.