10 Essential Mike Leigh Films You Need to Watch

British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his unusual directorial techniques. Using improvisation to shape his characters, dialogues, and storylines, Leigh usually begins his films with a rough outline of possible thematic directions and plot developments.

Choosing not the disclose any information regarding plot or character to his cast members, Leigh introduces the actors to each other in the order in which they would normally appear in the film. The actors are then told to stay in character in order to discover their innermost motivations, preoccupations, and responses to external stimuli. Once this stage is completed, after weeks of improvisation work, the cast may start shooting, having acquired in this way a comprehensive understanding of their characters and each other.

Acknowledging the playwright Harold Pinter as an important influence, Leigh usually inscribes within his characters some kind of muted struggle and a failure to express deep-rooted conflicts, often related to the incapacitating realities of British working class family life under Thatcher. Very bleak, Leigh’s kitchen-sink dramas cut to the core, as the filmmaker strives to document the lives and voices of a much-overlooked segment of British society.

Family secrets, ultra-violence, brutal dialogues, and sadism frequently feature as part of Leigh’s cinema. Often compared to the Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, Leigh’s films provide a unique and compelling perspective on the institution of the family and the various social ties born within underprivileged East London homes.


10. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)


Marking a curious departure from Leigh’s earlier films, Happy-Go-Lucky rejoices in the simple pleasures of every-day life. A celebration of contentment and joie-de-vivre, Leigh’s film follows Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a thirty-year-old primary school teacher, with a happy disposition and a can-do attitude. Whilst Poppy’s depressing environment and relatives threaten to imperil her positivity, the young teacher remains light-hearted, displaying an indestructible cheerfulness and an astonishing amount of empathy for others.

Do not expect any underlying sarcasm or chaos from Happy-Go-Lucky, as Leigh described his work as an ‘anti-miserabilist film’, thence denying allegations to any deeper, darker, unspoken side to Poppy’s character. Arguably the least representative film in Mike Leigh’s filmography, Happy-Go-Lucky is, albeit a bit of an outlier, a pleasant and relatable comedy with an uplifting message. Less fiercely militant than Leigh’s older films, Happy-Go-Lucky does not feature any of Leigh’s signature anti-Thatcherian political commitment, which made Secrets and Lies and Life is Sweet so compelling. With Happy-Go-Lucky, in fact, Leigh achieves the difficult feat of retaining the quick affect of his style, in a Blairian, post-Thatcher landscape.


9. Another Year (2010)

Another Year

An intimate look at the psychologies and experiences of ordinary people through the course of one year, Another Year is an ensemble drama, very characteristic of Leigh’s later cinema, which dives into the every-day lives of a married couple, geologist Tom and NHS counsellor Gerry, and their unhappy single friends, Mary and Ken. Combining comedy with tragedy, Another Year pits Tom and Gerry’s happy contentment against the harsh realities of their friends’ unbridled solitude. Starring some of Leigh’s favoured actors, such as Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, this family drama is sectioned in four parts, according to the seasons, as it examines the quiet ebb-and-flow of life, narrating in this way the gradual passing of time within the space of middle-class, middle-aged Britain.

Described by Leigh as ‘a very personal film’, Another Year represents a return in tone and theme to Leigh’s older films following the success of his romantic comedy Happy-Go-Lucky. An exploration of memory, family, relationships, and personal failures, Another Year offers a bittersweet portrait of the lives of the 50+, as it is set upon finding the sublime within the small, matter-of-fact elements of daily life, very much in the tradition of Ozu’s cinema.


8. Life is Sweet (1990)

life is sweet

Starring Leigh old-timers Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, Life is Sweet enters the home of a working class family settled in suburban North London over a few weeks during the summer. Life is Sweet follows Wendy, a part-time waitress, and her husband Andy, a senior chef working for a company of London caterers, as well as their two daughters, the twins Nicola and Natalie. Whilst practical, down-to-earth Natalie works as a plumber’s mate, Nicola suffers from bulimia and deep-seated unresolved issues related to her very troubled and guarded rapports and relationships, as well as her weight, and appearance.

An ensemble dramatic comedy, very much à la Mike Leigh, Life is Sweet looks at the smaller things of life, focusing on the dynamics of every-day family situations, as its fully rounded, lifelike characters attempt to negotiate their own unresolved issues, seeking some kind of redemption against the bleak climate of working class suburban London. Similarly to Poppy, Wendy persists in looking at the glass half full, as she resolutely strives to nurture happiness and contentment within her family and home.


7. Vera Drake (2004)

Vera Drake

Vera Drake is a period drama set in the fifties, which tells the tale of Vera (Imelda Stauton), a benevolent working-class mother and wife, who performs backroom abortions, free of charge, to help distressed young women burdened by unwanted pregnancies. The abortionist, however, finds her altruistic activities to backfire when an abortion goes wrong and the authorities finally catch her out.

Intended to instigate debate on the controverted topic, Vera Drake assumes a non-judgemental attitude on the subject of abortion. Placing Vera’s feminine philanthropy against the law, Vera Drake questions the sanctity of national codes of conduct and established social order.

Set in an austere Post-War England, Vera Drake also interconnects issues of class and ethics. Whilst working-class pregnant women were left to their own devices, wealthier women were provided other options, Leigh argues with the example of Susan’s character, a privileged young lady who is able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy legally at a clinic thanks to a costly sum.


6. Meantime (1984)

Mean Time

Featuring the dazzling performances of award-winning actors Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, this drama introduces Oldman to the public, also serving as a prime example of Mike Leigh at his best, as it explores the meandering lives of working-class youths during the political and socio-economic wasteland of Thatcher’s premiership.

With a very simple plot, Meantime relies on quick-paced, often violent dialogue, as it follows a family’s two unemployed sons, Colin, a reserved and sensitive teenager, and Mark, his outspoken, very loud brother. The pace picks up, and family rivalry ensues when Colin is offered a work opportunity by the family’s richer relative, Barbara, and Mark isn’t.

A gritty sketch of unemployed dejected youths during the time of Thatcher’s rule, Meantime reflects on the importance of focus and ambition, as it depicts the struggles faced by young people left to their own device in a London, which failed to promise them a future. A heart-breaking family drama, Meantime introduces some of Leigh’s signature directorial moves and thematic preoccupations.


5. High Hopes (1988)

High Hopes

A social satire on class and politics, High Hopes brings together a wide-range of characters, namely Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), a couple of two friendly, idealistic leftist intellectuals, Mrs Bender, Cyril’s forgetful elderly Tori-voting mother, Valerie, Mrs Bender’s high-strung unhappy daughter, and finally the Boothe-Braines, Mrs Bender’s insipid Yuppie neighbours.

Juxtaposing the experiences of an ordinary working-class couple against a frustrated middle class and a vapid egocentric upper middle class, High Hopes is a meditation on class and belief systems. Whilst Shirley expresses her desire to have a child, Cyril is unsure, concerned it might be injudicious to bring another life into what he deems to be an unfair class-bound society. Admittedly, the class binaries presented by Leigh are a little clichéd; Philip Davis and Ruth Sheen’s improvisation-based performances, however, make up for it.


4. All or Nothing (2002)

All or Nothing

A tour-de-force for Mike Leigh, his 2002 film All or Nothing focuses on the experiences of three low income families. With exceptional performances from Mike Leigh veterans, Lesley Manville, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Ruth Sheen, this family drama follows several storylines set in the same housing estate over the course of a long weekend, as it explores what it means ‘to get by week in, week out’ within the claustrophobic community of London’s working class.

Featuring the same cutting dialogues, use of soundtrack to accentuate the violence of ordinary life, and thematic preoccupations, as his other films, All or Nothing is a jarring and upsetting portrait of a working-class which has lost all hope, laced in typical Mike Leigh fashion with a slight touch of nostalgia. Loneliness, dark humour, and lethargy all feature as part of Leigh’s working class, whose neglected lives are punctured by daytime TV, drinks at the pub, casual sex, food, cigarettes, and sleep. Leigh’s masterpiece extends beyond the genre of kitchen sink dramas to emerge instead as a classic of contemporary British cinema.


3. Bleak Moments (1971)

Bleak Moments

Mike Leigh’s debut film, Bleak Moments tells the tragic-comic tale of Sylvia (Anne Raitt), a beautiful and intelligent young lady trapped in an austere, unfulfilling existence structured around her disabled sister. A kind of modern refashioning of Emma Bovary, Sylvia is not your usual old maid, so to speak. Rather, she is fated to a dull sterile life, held captive by her own unhappy circumstances. Described by Leigh as ‘the mother of all Mike Leigh films’, Bleak Moments was hailed by the late critic Roger Ebert as ‘a masterpiece, plain and simple’. Desperately seeking relief from the tedium of her life, Sylvia drinks a little too much Sherry on the evenings and assumes a dull, pessimistic outlook on life.

Two men, however, come to disturb the forced peace of Sylvia’s sorry monotony. Peter, played by Eric Allan, is a jumpy, inexperienced teacher, clearly unnerved by his awareness of the fact that Sylvia is, as it were, too good for him. Norman (Mike Bradwell), by contrast, is a hippie, tongue-tied by low self-esteem and reserve, come to run an underground magazine set up in Sylvia’s rented garage.


2. Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets & Lies

An award-winning drama on family love and redemption, Secrets and Lies brings together Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who plays Hortense, a successful black optometrist, adopted as a baby and now tracing back her family history following the death of her adoptive mother, and Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), her biological mother, a white working class woman and the matriarch of a dysfunctional family.

As the pair strives to negotiate some kind of arrangement, which would offer the two women a cathartic redemption, family tensions emerge; provoking superb performances from the cast ensemble, as well as heated conversations worthy of the best kitchen sink dramas and a touching conclusion. Expect from this gem tear-jerking dialogues, all round beautiful performances, and an absolutely gripping pace.


1. Naked (1993)


One of Leigh’s strongest films, Naked is a perfect example of what happens when inspired direction meets raw talent. David Thewlis, superb here, plays Johnny, an intelligent scoundrel, an eloquent Manchester crook, come to Dalston, East London, after raping a married woman in an alley way and stealing a car back in Manchester. Naked follows Johnny in his excursion through the streets of London, narrating his various encounters with the unfortunate individuals he occasions to meet. Sadistic, embittered, Johnny hurts the people he encounters, as he relies on a much-polished tactic of psychological bullying, aimed at individuals less cultured and intelligent than him. Johnny’s condition, it is implied several times in the film, results from some kind of childhood trauma, as well as a mixture of mental health diseases.

Depicting London’s outcasts and derelicts, Naked is much darker and grittier than Leigh’s other films, as it records both the outside, the homeless residents of East London’s sinuous streets, and the inside, portraying several households ranging from a variety of incomes. A representation of London in its totality, Naked shows the solitude and sorrow of urban life, as the film quickly moves from one isolated individual to the next. Effectively supported by an unsettling soundtrack, serving to highlight the despondency experienced by the film’s various characters during key moments, Naked is a must for any Mike Leigh enthusiast. While admittedly a little heavy, Naked is a very good way into Leigh’s cinema.

First published in Taste of Cinema on June 12th 2014