Mike Leigh’s debut film, Bleak Moments, is a remarkable and – certainly given tone and subject – unique work, about an intertwined selection of people with social struggles, set in British suburbia.
The film is centred around Sylvia (Anne Raitt), a typist, who spends her spare time caring for her autistic sister. She gives an incredibly engaging and sympathetic performance. It is one of few words, but her physical ticks – small head movements; a flittering of eyes away from contact – brilliantly draw the viewer in. She gives an indication of a much deeper personality, struggling to express itself.
But, as is custom with Mike Leigh films, there are a plethora of other fantastically-drawn characters, all superbly acted: Eric Allan as Peter, a potential love interest for Sylvia, who struggles to act on his feelings; Sarah Stephenson as Sylvia’s aforementioned sister; and Liz Smith, who plays her bed-bound character from The Royle Family.
Leigh is creating a version of realism here, but it is a heightened, absurdist reality where everybody has communication problems. Each person has their own differences and struggles. Some struggle in conversation, but are expressive creatively; others can’t speak; others are excessively shy; others speak different languages. What the film demonstrates is that, firstly, communication difficulties and mental illness are not all similar, and secondly, that everyone has their own personal struggles.
But the film does not feel the need to lecture this message to its audience. Its ambition is purely to show the lives of people we may not otherwise come across or understand. It is cinema, in its purest form, as an “empathy machine”, as Roger Ebert would call it.
Surprisingly, despite the subject matter and its title, Bleak Moments has a very dry sense of humour and its absurdity is quite amusing. A lot of the humour comes from a Kirkham-esque guitarist, Norman (Mike Bradwell), who’s temporarily living in Sylvia’s garage. He lacks conversational ability but can express himself musically, through utterly nonsensical lyrics.
But this should not give the impression that Bleak Moments can be viewed as a comedy. The film feels claustrophobic. We are emotionally trapped with the characters, unable to escape the small, dark rooms they find themselves in. This sensation is heightened by the tight screen ratio.
While not instantly recognisable as a Leigh film, it has many elements that have become archetypal traits. From the beginning, he perfectly captures the location – something he has continued to do throughout his career. Here, as he would do again in later films such as Life Is Sweet (1990) and Another Year (2014), he perfectly represents suburban lives with focus on small events and details. This does not sound difficult, but plenty of other directors have tried and failed. Additionally, the humour in the film should not be so surprising given that Leigh’s films later in his career, despite their range of subjects, always have humorous moments.
The film however, does not have his instantly recognisable ‘naturalistic’ style. This is probably because Bleak Moments was adapted from a play, whereas Leigh’s now long-established technique and style involves much collaboration with actors in order to create scripts.
Leigh wasn’t to make another feature film for seventeen years. Over this period, he honed and developed his technique with television films and plays, emerging with his unique style of naturalism. But Bleak Moments still stands as an excellent film and a superb start to the career of one of Britain’s greatest current working directors.