Mike Leigh has never had the easiest time getting his movies financed but with each successive film, and the critical acclaim that followed, it became easier. The problem for his early films, like High Hopes (1988), was that Leigh didn’t have a backlog of success to draw from nor a script to show investors. The reason being that Leigh prefers to work out a scenario and then spends weeks to months working with the actors on how each scene should be done. Improvisation is encouraged and individual ideas are welcome. To an investor, that doesn’t amount to much. Hand an investor a single line that says, “a brother and sister and their two spouses deal with their lives and aspirations while dealing with their fading mother,” and investors are going to say, “Get back to me when you have a script and stars attached.” For High Hopes, that spelled doom until the British TV station Channel 4 stepped in and partially funded it. The result is one of the most moving and engaging films of the ‘80s and an early masterwork in Mike Leigh’s catalog.
High Hopes tells the story of Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), a young leftist couple living sparsely but remain hopeful despite the lack of opportunity ever knocking at their door. Cyril’s sister, Valerie (Heather Tobias), is married to Martin (Philip Jackson) and the two of them aspire to be Yuppies, a young upwardly mobile couple that can hobnob with the elite. By chance, Valerie and Cyril’s mom (Edna Doré) lives next door to just such an elite couple (Lesley Manville and David Bamber). When she locks herself out of her house, she winds up in the rich couple’s house giving Valerie a chance to snoop around and rub shoulders.
That doesn’t sound like much of a plot but the interactions that come out of it are extraordinary. Not only does Leigh and his actors know how to get to the intimate core of a scene, they somehow have the ability to mix humor and horror in equal doses. Two scenes in particular—the mother in the rich couple’s house and a later birthday party for the mother at Valerie’s house—play as alternately funny and desperately sad. The work the actors do here cannot be reduced to bland superlatives like “great” or “Oscar-worthy” because there is such a communal element to what they are doing; rather such an interaction between them feels less like individual acting and more like a single, all-encompassing performance by the group together.
That’s not to say they are not excellent performances that don’t deserve some of those bland superlatives, but the ensemble of this film creates something far greater than anything anyone does individually. Mike Leigh would go on to have greater success in the ‘90s and beyond and had an easier time getting financing for later projects. But High Hopes still stands as one of his best. A masterpiece of truth. And hope.
Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh and cast
Producers: Simon Channing Williams, Victor Glynn
Music: Andrew Dickson
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Film Editing: Jon Gregory
Production Design: Diana Charnley
Art Direction: Andrew Rothschild
Costume Design: Lindy Hemming
Makeup: Morag Ross
Cast: Philip Davis (Cyril), Ruth Sheen (Shirley), Edna Doré (Mrs Bender), Philip Jackson (Martin), Heather Tobias (Valerie), Lesley Manville (Lætitia), David Bamber (Rupert), Jason Watkins (Wayne), Judith Scott (Suzi)