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‘High Hopes’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1989


Mike Leigh
Ruth Sheen;
Philip Davis
Not rated

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Bluesy and sneaky funny, Mike Leigh's British comedy "High Hopes" is about as exhilarating as a movie about a bone-deep malaise can be. Plotless and loosely structured as a series of vignettes, the picture works on an impressive number of levels. It can be almost spookily understated in its humor, then raucous and unsubtle, like political cabaret. Yet even at its funniest, the comedy has such a dark undertow that, watching it, you may feel drugged, blindsided. Afterward, you may not know quite what hit you.

"High Hopes" may be the ultimate movie document of the Thatcher era. Iron Maggie, Tories, Marx, old age and revolution -- these are just some of the film's subjects, its clay. Yet in sculpting it, Leigh doesn't slip into easy rhetoric. "High Hopes" isn't a flamboyant catalogue of attitudes, like "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid." Its radicalism is deeper, its satire richer, more humane and less dogmatically countercultural.

Set in a rain-soggy London, the movie begins almost sheepishly, with the arrival of a hapless young man named Wayne (Jason Watkins), who rises out of the tube in search of his sister's apartment. Looking for help, he meets Cyril (Philip Davis), who's busy repairing the motorcycle he uses for his job with a messenger service. Cyril and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), who works for the city, planting trees, are the movie's moral center. For nearly 10 years, they've lived together, in a state of cramped bohemianism, smoking hash, raising cacti one of which is named Thatcher because "they're both a pain in the arse" and taking in strays. They're perpetual outsiders, these two, but not in any romantic sense. The antiestablishment beliefs upon which they've based their lives are no longer viable. The revolution in the '60s sense of the term is over. Thatcher killed it. And they know it.

The flickering out of any relevant activism is at the movie's core, but if Leigh feels any nostalgia for the loss he doesn't show it perhaps because he's moved far beyond simple nostalgia. The picture's tone is one of outrage exhausted outrage. It's satire from the point of view of the scorned and defeated, from those who feel disenfranchised by the self-interest of the '80s. Yet its underlying mood is surprisingly buoyant. If Cyril and Shirl are resigned, there's puckishness and grit in their resignation.

Leigh, who brings with him years of experience in the theater, takes a singular approach to his work with actors. By urging his performers to improvise during rehearsal, he allows them to assist in the creation of their own characters. This has magnificent results with the characters of Cyril and Shirl. I was crazy about the way Davis and Sheen interacted, about their tender, under-the-breath chiding and kidding. It's a lovers' language that they speak, private and full of whimsy, and it communicates beautifully the bond between them.

In counterpoint to the organic naturalism of these actors, Leigh presents Leslie Manville and David Bamber, who give extravagantly mannered performances as Laetitia and Rupert, a pair of status-mad yuppies living next door to Cyril's aged mum (Edna Dore). As caricatures of devoted self-obsession, these two are drawn with razor-point accuracy -- they look as if they sleep in mink-lined diapers.

As targets, though, they're far too easy to hit. And during a sequence in which Cyril's mum loses her keys and seeks refuge with her far-from-hospitable neighbors, the contrast in types never spins together to score the comic point Leigh is aiming for. Separately the styles have meaning, but not together.

There's confusion, too, over just what Leigh is trying to convey with Cyril's sister Valerie (Heather Tobias). A screaming parody of nouveau gaucherie, Valerie minces and giggles like a drag queen doing his Bette Midler impersonation, and the character is so grotesquely overblown that it sets your teeth on edge. The presentation of her wheeler-dealer husband Martin (Philip Jackson) has a more human scale -- there seems to be a real person in there -- and a scene in which he makes a move on the Olive Oylish Shirl during a birthday celebration for Mum is a tricky bit of underplayed harmonizing.

There are other great bits, like a visit to Marx's grave during which a crowd of Chinese tourists edges into the frame, and a visit from a friend from the old radical days who comes over and talks a lot of rubbish about the revolution. Also, there's a lovely scene in which Cyril and Shirl finally rid themselves of Wayne, who has seemed to haunt the movie, looking for some place to fit in.

There's such delicacy in the comedy here -- and in the way the cameraman Roger Pratt has shot it -- that it's hard to convey without somehow diminishing it, but in these moments the movie comes close to soulfulness. Other British films, like "Eat the Peach," "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," have examined the social climate of England in the '80s. (Thatcherism may have had one unexpected kickback a rebirth of vitality in the British film industry.) "High Hopes" falls in line with those movies. Out of his disenchantment, Leigh has fashioned a limber style of political commentary that is part documentary, part cartoon and wholly novel in the movies.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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