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‘High Hopes’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1989


Mike Leigh
Ruth Sheen;
Philip Davis
Not rated

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Writer-director Mike Leigh offers a kinder, gentler England in "High Hopes," a wonderfully humanist antidote to Margaret Thatcher's upwardly mobile empire. In this wry drama of class division and family trouble, the case for "Love thy neighbor" was never so eloquently made.

As yuppies gentrify London's neighborhoods, the welfare state disintegrates and Karl Marx's statue presides futilely over his grave, Cyril and Shirley do their best to get along with each other and the clutch of lost souls, social climbers and pretentious prigs around them. Their unflinching goodwill, in the face of all this sociopolitical bleakness, becomes a quiet triumph. They emerge as an urban Joseph and Mary, almost by default.

Cyril (Philip Davis), a bearded motorcycle messenger, has lost his old socialist convictions but helps out hopeless cases anyway, from his ailing mother Mrs. Bender (she has Alzheimer's) to lost wayfarer Wayne, who knows the house number he's looking for but not the street. His earth-mother girlfriend Shirley (a serene, Olive-Oylish Ruth Sheen) loves Cyril, hopes for a child and grows cactuses with mischievous names like "Knob" and "Thatcher."

Together, they take England.

Which means abiding Cyril's poisonous sister Valerie (Heather Tobias), a manic, nouvelle riche housewife who pesters her car-salesman husband (Philip Jackson) for shopping money and her mother to attend the 70th birthday party Val's throwing in her tackily upscale home.

It also means rescuing Mom from . . . yuppies. When Mrs. Bender, the last council-tenant on a gentrified street, locks herself out she appeals to her neighbors Laetitia and Rupert Booth-Brain (Leslie Manville and David Bamber). The Thatcherian couple likes to talk wine, discuss opera and, when no one's about, play a saucy game called "Mr. Sausage." Eventually, Cy and Shirl bring the old lady's spare key.

They also save her from her own birthday party, in which Val tries ramming cake into her mother's mouth while her husband makes passes at Shirley. Then they treat Mrs. Bender to a rooftop view of her neighborhood, which the old lady thinks is "the top of the world." This is the existential glory "High Hopes" exults in -- the kind that celebrates people whether or not they can turn a profit.

But the comedy is there too. Manville is icily effective as Laetitia, who hurries Mrs. Bender up with a "Chop-chop!" Tobias gives Valerie an insidious, grating giggle that is almost worth the price of admission. She and Jackson, as Martin, have a wonderfully blase' sex-as-usual ritual. "You're Michael Douglas," she says. " 'Oo's Michael Douglas?" he asks. "You start," she says. "You start," he says. Fireworks. British-bedroom fireworks.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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