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High Hopes
cast: Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Doré, Philip Jackson, and Lesley Manville

director: Mike Leigh

Fabulous DVD Region 2 retail
[released 3 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Mike Leigh specialises in slice-of-life London dramas where he gives his actors free range to improvise yet manages to hold everything together to present quietly political family dramas on an intimate scale. High Hopes is one of Leigh's best-known films, and even though it has dated, there is little irrelevant about its subject matter and approach. There's a strange kid of nostalgia to be had from watching Leigh's characters move through streets that are long gone, areas that have been redeveloped so that the exact working class people who gave London its unique and indomitable spirit can no longer afford to live there.

Cyril Bender (the brilliant Phil Davis) is a socialist at heart, but can't be bothered to get off his arse and do something about it. He lives in a constant state of repressed anger; bitterness pours from his every molecule. Yet he still finds it in his heart to invite a lost stranger into his home, thereby unconsciously displaying the very socialist traits he believes are somehow out of his reach.

Cyril's amiable girlfriend Shirley (Ruth Sheen) works for the council planting trees. She wants a family, a home, a life that she can build around them both, and sees a way to remain true to her (and more importantly, Cyril's) Marxist beliefs while still flirting around the edges of what Cyril would call a bourgeois yuppie lifestyle.

Cyril's mother (Edna Dor´┐Ż) still lives in the council house where she raised her family, although the neighbourhood has been taken over by the moneyed middle class - two of whom live next door, and are forced into helping out when the old woman locks herself out of her home.

Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her husband, Martin (Philip Jackson), are both ruled by money in their own way - he by the trappings of wealth (fast cars, casual mistresses, alcohol abuse), and she by rampant consumerism and the need to fill her house with what her brother Cyril calls 'tasteless tat.' When Valerie receives the call to rescue their mother, she sees it as an opportunity to see what the neighbours have done with their house; when Cyril arrives on the scene, his main concern is for his mum, whom he cares for but would never admit it to her face.

As usual in Leigh's films, things come to a head at a family gathering, this one a birthday party held by Valerie for her mother. The result is often as painful to watch, as it is darkly funny. The performances are generally top notch (if occasionally slightly overwrought), the writing incisive, and the message clear. If Tobias is sometimes a little over-the-top in her histrionics and Manville and Bamber could do with being just a little more restrained, then Doré's turn as the dementia-bound mother counteracts all this with a display of such nuance, economy, and emotional integrity that I was in awe of her presence on the screen. In one mesmerising moment, where the camera lingers on her face in a startling close-up, you see all the pain and struggle of her lifetime etched into her features. But there's comedy amid the despair: one moment had me laughing so hard that I was forced to turn off the DVD player to pull myself together before I could continue watching the film.

Leigh's direction is elegant and subdued; he allows the audience to adjust to his rhythm and never dictates how we should feel about what's being presented. He takes pleasure in the quiet, intimate moments, and trusts us to follow him where he guides us. Leigh takes no prisoners with his targets, and those targets are always worth hitting - greed, superficiality, self-obsession, lack of human compassion and self-awareness, it all gets blasted here. This is filmmaking with a social conscience. But Leigh's heroes are never less than flawed; dignified in their struggle against life they may be, yet they are still just as lost as everyone else around them.

If you have any interest at all in the British film industry, buy this. It's worth it.

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