High Hopes (Mike Leigh, 1988)


Ruth Sheen (Shirley), Lesley Manville (Laetitia Boothe-Brain), Philip Davis (Cyril), Philip Jackson (Martin Burke). Screenplay by Mike Leigh. Directed by Mike Leigh. Rating: 15. Running time: 112 minutes.

Class consciousness at its clearest, High Hopes carves out a caricature of a country which Thatcherism was making more real by the day. The focus is on Shirley and Cyril, a leftwing quirky couple content with measly wages and interested in all things Marxist. Surrounded by them are peripheral characters of a wide variety, from Cyril’s newly bourgeois sister and pompous husband, to his ageing mother who’s the last council house resident on an otherwise gentrified London street. The nonsense Leigh has the yuppies spout out here is almost nauseating in its stupidity, and it’s undoubtedly Shirley and Cyril who we’re supposed to judge to be the comparatively sane ones. The mix of humour and drama is the strangest I’ve seen in a Leigh film to date. The harmonica, playing persistently throughout, ensures there’s an aura of solemnity surrounding an already quite critical, serious-feeling film, and yet often it also feels like we’re supposed to find amusing events that are definitely quietly tragic. There’s not too much to shout loudly about here, but High Hopes must have seemed sufficiently original in ’88 to justify paying more attention to its creator. With the themes of love and growing old that Mike Leigh has made a career out of, the seeds were well sown here for future gems.

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