By Jeremy Carr.
Based solely on his latest string of features – Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Another Year (2010), Mr. Turner (2014) – one might reasonably assume all Mike Leigh films are mostly comical snippets of cockney quirkiness and bubbly English pleasantry. It doesn’t take much to see this hasn’t always been the case, however. Far from it. As recently as 2004, with Vera Drake, Leigh has proven himself a vigilant chronicler of austere concern. Digging still deeper into his filmography, going back further through the years, the full extent of his intuitively muted worldview is even more pronounced. And yet, there remains that unmistakably familiar Mike Leigh form and tenor. Like his equally pessimistic 1993 feature, Naked (only minus the humor and with added domestic anxiety), his 1984 television film, Meantime, produced by Central Television for Channel 4, is archetypal Leigh in its naturalism and its spot-on common folk characterizations. But there is also something more pointed at work here.
Befitting its title, Meantime does not have an obvious narrative trajectory. The storyline is imprecise, with an ambivalent momentum and an insecure foundation for character development. Among those who make up the working-class Pollock family focus, or hover in and out of their social sphere, there is mother and father Mavis (Pam Ferris) and Frank (Jeff Robert), their two sons, Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels), Mavis’ sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband John (Alfred Molina), the brothers’ friend Coxy (Gary Oldman), and a local girl named Hayley (Tilly Vosburgh). Mavis, Frank, Colin, and Mark uncomfortably reside in an East London apartment, where their combustible proximity and apparent disdain for one another is only exacerbated by the nation’s debilitating recession and an all-encompassing environment of generational, cultural, and moral flux. Laden with smart aleck banter and insulting quips, the piercing familial concentration is never exceptionally pleasant, and a conventionally binding plot remains adamantly absent. In fact, throughout Meantime, which at 107 minutes is awfully close to wearing out its welcome, only one of these individuals, Colin, comes anywhere near a transitional, progressive time in his or her life.
As stagnant as these characters are – literally, but also in broad socioeconomic terms – it’s within these humdrum moments that Leigh successfully captures a casual, candid lethargy, doing so with pitiless accuracy. Aimless and existentially adrift, whether they recognize it or not, this primary lineup yields little consideration. Meantime is a bitter picture, marked by hostile provocations between resentful parents and their apathetic children, and between the two brothers. Miserably wise and cynical beyond his years, Mark in particular is constantly needling Colin, his timid, mentally unbalanced younger sibling. The obtrusive elder brother has little, if any, respect for his parents (not that they do much to earn it) and scorns anyone who escapes or seeks to break from this despairing state of impoverishment. In Meantime, this contempt largely falls at the door of aunt Barbara, whose comparatively more affluent existence is viewed almost as a mockery of the Pollock family’s indignant condition. What Mark, Mavis, and Frank don’t see, however, or at least they can’t seem to interpret, is the suburban malaise that simultaneously afflicts Barbara and John. Well-paying jobs, a respectable house, and elocution lessons have but masked an inescapable internal lassitude. Though she is only granted ample prominence later in the film, this puts Barbara in a curious position, as one who is derided by her family even though she shares a similar sense of unstated suffering. This affords Marion Bailey, a long-time collaborator of Leigh’s (and his eventual romantic partner), one of Meantime’s more sympathetic roles. While the others almost seem to revel in their acrimony, doing little to actually rectify their lot, in the face of blatant condescension, Bailey’s compliant, cordial housewife is all smiles and cheer. In this way, she is rather like a saddened, disillusioned future version of what Sally Hawkins’ Poppy (from Happy-Go-Lucky) will hopefully never become.
Colin is the only other character to generate a degree of immediate, absolute compassion (though one feels a sort of abstract empathy for almost everyone, just based on the dissatisfied and disaffected state of each). Throughout Meantime, the 23-year-old Roth ambles along head hung low, eyes peering meekly above his lowered glasses, silently observing the chaos and cruelty with bewilderment and a latent decency. His submissiveness and repressed sensitivity (repressed because of shyness, fear, and his psychological affliction) finds a contrasting boorish counterpart in Oldman’s skinhead Coxy. In just his second role, Oldman imbues his dangerously impulsive character with a frightening dash of tough-guy impudence and juvenile rambunctiousness. Other than perhaps his unbridled outward passion (as repellant as it may be), one can hardly figure what draws people to Coxy, but Mark, Colin, and poor Hayley can’t seem to stay away; Mark sees a comparably bored and sardonic cohort, Colin doesn’t know better and tries to emulate the opposing extrovert, and Hayley has few other choices.
In any case, it is Oldman’s Coxy who receives one of the more expressive actions of Meantime, as he rolls around in a large industrial bucket, rocking back and forth without moving forward, banging erratically at the walls of this overturned metal container. Though the camera simply passes by this image of fitful frustration, it is an appropriate symbolic summary for the film as a whole. Reflecting the stunted evolution of these characters, despite all their rage and fruitless dynamism, Leigh’s picture is fit to burst with incessant movement and palpable energy. But it is continually facing resistance. For the Pollock family, and others like them, this conflict arises from an individual lack of options and opportunity, often leading to a depressing immobility. It likewise results from external factors like sexist inequality, housing debasement, and state inertia. In his essay for the new Criterion Collection release of Meantime, a disc that includes an interview with Roth and conversations between Leigh and musician Jarvis Cocker and between Bailey and critic Amy Raphael, Sean O’ Sullivan remarks on the 11 percent unemployment at the time of the film’s release, and notes the crisis that consumes Meantime is “namely, the crisis of national identity triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.” Along these line, with the best of intentions, Barbara gives a shrewd treatise on economics, noting specifically that the economy is “based on power,” but that “money is a fact of life.” Indeed, powerlessness is also part of the Pollock problem, a tragic fact of their lives.
Meantime is arguably Mike Leigh’s most renowned television production. After his first feature, 1971’s Bleak Moments, he had been working in television for more than 10 years (and wouldn’t make another theatrical film until 1988), and he had already established an artistic preference for spontaneity, famously eschewing a traditional screenplay and instead favoring intensive rehearsal and improvisation. This is evident all through Meantime, where scenes of fundamental inconsequence and those of understated meaning fall into each other with equal distinction, where characters are alive with painfully authentic candor and an uninhibited rancor, and where, as suggested by the dialogue that carries on after the end credits start to roll, such insolence and volatility is likely to continue. Forgoing stereotypes or emblematic models, Leigh was chastised by political parties across the board for not being hardline enough for any given ideology. That was never the point, though. Meantime isn’t explicitly about big ideas or lofty dilemmas; it’s about what happens to average people while these things are happening around them, and Leigh’s direction is perfectly suited to this irregular angst.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.