MEANTIME (Mike Leigh, 1983) – Review

The following does contain spoilers for Meantime, so if you haven’t seen it, it’s available on YouTube, and now on Criterion, too.

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Meantime, another Mike Leigh television film, made for the BBC, is considered to be one of the true hidden gems of British cinema. I’d like to be able to say that it’s a wonder as to how the film fell into obscurity, however in this case the blame falls to the BBC, who simply refused to release the film other than on TV, meaning that the only ways of access to the film were to see it on the recently opened Channel 4 or on a bootleg.

The film, released in 1983, is very difficult to explain. The best way I can explain it is to say that it is about a family struggling with the ridiculous unemployment caused by Thatcher’s reign in the 1980’s, which left more than 10% unemployed in Britain. The film brilliantly highlights the aimless lives of the characters, none of them really move on or change throughout the film, and the film is almost plotless, with essentially small episodic stories that are carefully placed together to construct a narrative.

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There are many different themes featured in the film, ranging from a political tone to a smaller subplot on racism, though the film mainly focuses on the issues that come with “the virus of unemployment”, as Leigh puts it himself in an interview with Jarvis Cocker. Though we mainly see just the daily lives of these people, it is impossible not to see the effects of Thatcher’s reign and how it is changing the lives of these people. Leigh says in an interview “I think that the education system is really to blame”, before going on to talk about Phil Daniel’s character, Mark, who is evidently intelligent and yet has no place to articulate his skills, no job to make himself useful in, and so instead he only uses his intelligence to “take the piss out of his brother”.

His brother in question, Colin, is the character at the heart of the film as far as I’m concerned. Though Leigh himself says that he believes Marion Bailey’s Barbara to be the sympathetic character of the film, I truly believe that Tim Roth’s Colin is the one to feel sorry for. Colin’s character is potentially mentally disabled, or at least he was “never given a chance!”, as Barbara says to her husband early on in the film. We see Colin desperately try to seek employment and to fit in throughout the film, potentially even find himself a girlfriend in Tilly Vosburgh’s Hayley, and yet he never quite manages to make it. Thankfully, by the end we come to realise that his brother does care for him more than he lets on, whether he likes to admit it or not.

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As much as the film sees one of the very earliest performances from Tim Roth, fresh off of the set of Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain (1982), he is not the only secret star hidden in the film. If you pay attention, you can also notice Pam Ferris playing the mother, Mavis, who would later go on to be in Children Of Men (2006), Matilda (1996) and even the third Harry Potter film in 2004, as well as the very first major performance from Gary Oldman, who was actually lucky to complete the film after an injury on set that very nearly blinded him (“If you were to see a very close-up shot of him, you’d still be able to see a little scar just here, above his nose”, Leigh says).

Though Leigh brought these stars to light in the film, the way he constructed their characters is what really interests me. Tim Roth explains some of the way Leigh works in a 2006 interview, wherein he explains that Leigh had no script and simply let the actors find the characters themselves before writing a narrative for them to find themselves in… something that may have been an inspiration to the way that Shane Meadows works. He also explains that there were great stretches of time when he wouldn’t see anyone on the set, and he was initially very surprised when Leigh told him that he was one of the film’s main characters… thank God that Clarke happened to know Leigh was casting at the time, something I, and I’m sure Roth too, are very thankful for.

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The film, though quite brief at 104 minutes, manages to pack in a lot of different characters. A great example of this is the estate manager, played by Peter Wight, who, despite the fact that we see him in just one scene of the film, manages to create a rather in depth character with small mannerisms and quirks that make him memorable. “Okay. Our job is to help you, yeah? And it helps us to help you if you help us, okay? … An anthill, yeah? An anthill, which can be as big as a man – as big as three men – begins as a single grain of sand, Okay? Time passes… the single grain becomes the anthill, Okay? It’s like repairs, you know. Small things become big things, yeah? What I’m saying is, it helps if you talk to use about the grain of sand, don’t wait and report to us an anthill, yeah?” He says, stealing the show in his brief encounter with the other characters of the film.

Despite the fact that surely the film was limited by the BBC’s lack of care for release, thankfully in 1988 Leigh’s High Hopes was given a better release, and even better is the fact that after many years as a generally unknown cult film, the Criterion Collection have given it a stunning 2K restoration, which released in 2017.

The film’s legacy continues to this day, with filmmakers like the Safdie Brothers admittedly being inspired heavily by the film, noticeably using a similar style in their films, specifically Good Time, which even has a similar title, but also a very similar style of cinematography (the use of extreme close-ups on actors) and a similar feeling of a known and lived in area around these characters.

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Though Meantime may have kickstarted the careers of two of the most well known actors in Hollywood today, it also added yet another fantastic film to Mike Leigh’s filmography, and this is one that really sticks out when compared to the rest.

Mike Leigh even says himself, “I have a real soft spot for Meantime”, and I must say, I feel exactly the same way.

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