Long before the critical and popular success of Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh made many low-budget films for television. Most of these subtle and unique works – e.g., Grown Ups (1980) and Home Sweet Home (1982) – depicted the everyday domestic life and relationships of working-class people. These films never received the same critical consideration as Leigh’s theatrically released works, though they had a similar preternatural ability to capture the essence of individual behavior and social class patterns.
One of Leigh’s most powerful and melancholy portraits of working class life under Thatcherism was the 16mm Channel Four television production (unfortunately completed just before they decided to make 35mm films for theatrical release) of Meantime (1983) – a film that has rarely been shown in U.S. theatres, but has now been released by Fox Lorber Home Video.
Meantime centers around an unemployed family living on the dole in a desolate council estate. It’s Leigh’s version of a political film, which means that he offers no political answers to the plight of his characters nor does he try in any way to turn them into sympathetic social victims. In fact, the Pollocks, the caterwauling family at the film’s center, are a model of callousness and dysfunction, acrimoniously shouting “Shut up!” and deriding each other in almost every exchange over life’s minutia. It includes chain-smoking Mavis (Pam Ferris) and Frank (Jeff Robert), the abrasive, sour, uncaring parents, and their sons, the slow-witted, listless Colin who walks like a marionette (though there is no sign of Slingblade or Shine-style cuteness or audience manipulation in Tim Roth’s poignant, totally unsentimental performance). There is also his cynical, smart older brother, Mark (Phil Daniels), who impotently expresses nothing but sarcasm and contempt for everybody around him and spends solitary days drifting around the city.
The other characters who live in the council fiats seem either terminally inert and depressed, or hostile and aimless, like Gary Oldman’s Coxey, a beer-drinking, apelike-walking, wildly gesticulating, theatrically psychopathic skinhead (who is last seen banging around in a tin drum like a Beckett character). Coxey even indulges in some halfhearted racist threats, but his racism gives him no edge or sense of self-esteem. It’s just part of the absurd, pathetic persona he’s constructed.
The Pollocks’ cramped flat is part of a graffiti-ridden, forlorn, paper-strewn council estate (a concrete “anthill”) where even the pubs are lifeless. Describing the environment as ‘bleak’ is using too positive an adjective. In Meantime the characters lack both work and hope – there is only the interminable dole line, television, pool, bingo, the betting parlor, and a life of immobility. For them, one day is no different from the next, and all the days blur into the dreary grayness of the world that envelops them and which becomes an apt metaphor for their condition. Leigh depicts his characters in an utterly clear-eyed fashion. He refuses to make them either politically conscious (the only political expression being Mark’s working class resentment of his Aunt Barbara’s clean, suburban life style) or warm, sensitive, and communal. Mark clearly loves the quasicatatonic Colin, but constantly undercuts and patronizes him, even subverting his one faint attempt at autonomy.
As always, Leigh aroused the criticism of the extreme left by refusing to make a political film with heroes, villains, and ringing, facile solutions. Meantime never inveighs against capitalism or indulges in rhetoric about the horrors of Thatcherism. The film provides us only with a grimly authentic portrait of unemployed working-class people living beaten-down, miserable lives, without the consolation of even a chaotic, intense urbanscape and street life in which to lose themselves.
Nevertheless, though Leigh makes no overt political judgments, Meantime makes clear that the Thatcher-induced culture of unemployment helps create a society of depressed, futile people where the wit and insight of a man like Mark just turns rancid and goes to waste. Still, Leigh is too honest an observer to make us believe that the family’s whole story is explained by the oppressive nature of the English class system and the dead-end social and economic alternatives they face. The Pollocks, especially the parents, are the type of emotionally stunted, unpleasant people, who are incapable of ever breaking out of the set pattern of their lives. They are people who would probably function badly and be unhappy even if a socialist society built on full employment and humane housing was in the offing.
Leigh’s treatment of Barbara (Marion Bailey), Mavis’s younger sister, is equally complex. Barbara, married to a bank manager, has escaped the East End, and lives an upwardly mobile life in a large, unlived-in looking new house on a sterile suburban estate in Chigwell. Intelligent, childless, tense Barbara, however, drinks, feels isolated and profoundly depressed, and is burning with hostility towards her unseeing, conventional husband. There is a social context to Barbara’s behavior. She’s a working-class woman who has moved up in class (she has gone to business college and taken elocution lessons to refine her Cockney accent), but it has resulted only in estrangement and despair.
The film suggests that the unease and anxiety she lives with may partially be a result of her social mobility, but Leigh, without spelling it out, intimates that, like all personal narratives, there is more than one reason why Barbara behaves and feels as she does. Barbara may be more articulate, and have more life options than the Pollocks, but her voice conveys something painfully fragile and uncertain, though we can only speculate about its cause. She may be able, finally, to say “Fuck off!” to her husband, and Colin may, for the moment, break out of his stupor and bellow “Shut up!” at his stunned parents, but neither minor triumph prefigures any change in their cheerless, moribund lives. There are no political or personal revolutions in the offing in Meantime.
Meantime is a film with the barest of narratives, built around a string of episodes where nothing much happens except the illumination of a chill, agonizing world and a number of individuals who inhabit it. It’s filled with undramatic shots of characterless and claustrophobic rooms, silent, barren streets and shopping precincts, and long takes and close-ups observing lives of quiet desperation. In Leigh’s hands those long takes and close-ups do more than just illustrate hopelessness. In one exchange between Mark and Barbara, we see Mark guiltily recognize that Barbara is not some symbol of middle-class complacency, but an anguished woman. Nothing follows between them, Leigh avoiding the false Hollywood moment, staying exactly with the way these two people would behave in this situation.
Leigh also never tries to convey his point of view by using the rather melodramatic crosscutting that a film like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner does in its climactic race. His interest is not on what will happen next – the film contain no thrills, suspense, surprises, or violence. Nobody takes or sells drugs, and no one gets injured or killed in Meantime. Everybody in the film ends up where they began – in a seedy void.
In Meantime Leigh includes one of his classic sequences where a character who has no relation to the film’s central narrative appears, limning in a few minutes a memorable portrait (e.g., Wayne in High Hopes, Stuart in Secrets & Lies). In this film it’s the manager of the council estate, played by Peter Wight (the philosophic night watchman in Naked), who calls on the Pollocks about a broken window. Sitting on his haunches, this vague, socially concerned man nebulously digresses about economics, self-help, and power to an excited Barbara, who has a chance to show off her education, and to a nonplussed Frank, Mavis, and Colin, who just want their window attended to. In his earnest, self-involved way, he wants to be of help, but you know watching him talk that he’s probably incapable of managing his bank account, let alone a problem-plagued council estate.
Meantime is one among a number of films – like Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) also starring Tim Roth, Frears and Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Leigh’s own more volatile and expressive Naked (1993), and Antonia Bird’s Safe (1993) – that portray a variety of marginal, sometimes violent lives. It’s the Britain of the homeless, the drug addicted, and the unemployed that never sees the light of day in the tourist brochures or in the ‘Heritage films,’ but whose reality in evoked more and more often in contemporary British cinema.
Meantime is a film that carries less of a satiric and humorous edge than many of Leigh’s other works like Life is Sweet. (1990). If there is less revelatory laughter here (Leigh never merely pacifies his audience with humor), there is still a striking mixture of critical detachment and unpatronizing empathy for his characters – a Leigh trademark. There are no admirable characters in the film, but there are real people struggling within the confines of their own profound personal and social limitations to cope with their lives.
Mike Leigh’s best films are often uncomfortable and unpredictable, and aim to make an audience uneasy. They subvert the formulaic and force the viewer to see just how multifaceted and complex the most everyday of lives are. In small masterworks, like Meantime, he has shaped a slice of working-class life without indulging in false, sensational, or expected notes. He has created a joyless world, which avoids descending either into nihilism or bathos, and has seamlessly converted familiar, banal behavior into understated eloquence.