Mike Leigh’s Debut Film Is a Small Masterpiece: 1971’s “Bleak Moments”


The brilliant Anne Raitt of “Bleak Moments”

There have been few British film directors over the last forty years whose overall body of work I would label as “uncompromising.” Especially difficult was to stay real past the era of creative freedom that was the 1970s; there was the creative lock down and resulting button down stiffness of the 1980s, a decade that forced the British film industry to get all “Chariots of Fire” on us. Which of course, lowered our standards and set the plate for what would be the most successful English filmmaker of today, the human codpiece, Danny Boyle. Truly one British director whom never succumbed to the vile era of the period piece and or uptown glitz over this time is director Mike Leigh.  With Leigh’s 24th film, “Mr. Turner,” about to be released here in the States, I thought to go back and look at Mike’s astonishing 1971 debut effort, “Bleak Moments.”

I cannot imagine as to what folks thought of “Bleak Moments” when it was released in the early 1970s. Though devotees of the films from the British New Wave were used to seeing fairly tough to watch fare like “A Taste of Honey” and “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” we must remind ourselves that although those films possessed some fairly shocking themes for the time (abortion, homosexuality), their actors and the overall tone would still rise above the hardships to provide the viewer with many entertaining moments.  No such uplifting time exists within “Bleak Moments,” a film that succeeds in a dour, hopeless tone that few films have been able to reach since.  Much of that not only is due to our Mr. Leigh, who both wrote and directed “Bleak Moments,” and its talented actors who convey the desperation to create this unrelenting, low mood but also it’s modest budget, which lead to the dark visuals and low-fi sound to enhance its already stark feeling of hopelessness.

The film is about Sylvia (Anne Raitt) an office worker, who after putting in a hard day, tends to her mentally challenged sister in her tiny apartment. She is a pretty and somewhat cynical woman whose only amusements given her charge in life and financial situation are the occasional good book and a glass of sherry. At work she chats with her friend Pat, (Joolia Cappleman) who also has the burden of taking care of a physically incapable family member, her elderly mother. They commiserate, but little is actually said about their true sadness that is their lot in life.   Sylvia has a man in her life, the equally quite teacher, Paul (Eric Allan) who wants to be with Sylvia but lacks the fire necessary to break through to her and show her how he really feels. There is also Norman (Mike Bradwell), a hippie folk song singer who also fancies Sylvia and rents the garage, but he also lacks in the self-worth category, so when he is dismissed by Paul as a failure, Norman takes the failure route out.

Paul and Sherry go out on a date, but what follows is a series of awkward dialogs, an incredibly rude waiter that exposes Paul’s inabilities to be a man, and a scene of courtship that occurs back at Sylvia’s place that may never be rivaled for its depiction of sad desperation in screen history. Again, whereas an earlier British New Wave film would’ve resorted to moments of comedy in such a scene, Leigh never lets you off the ropes because he shouldn’t.  These are people whom we all know, good-natured people whom life has pushed aside, but you know that deep down inside that there is little in their makeup to allow them to overcome their self-imposed malaise. You know that they are doomed to “live lives of quiet desperation” that I’m sure would even go well beyond Thoreau’s imagination of such as he penned that line. First time director Leigh allows for every small moment to hit home. It is exceptionally intelligent work for a director the age of 28.

Though this was Leigh’s first outing as a film director, his knowledge of the theater allowed him to select the right acting talents to head this project, a project that was funded by the stars of many of those British New Wave classics, Albert Finney and Michael Medwin, whose production company, Memorial Films, had just bankrolled Lindsay Anderson’s “If” and provided the twenty thousand Pounds that was necessary to get Leigh’s career as a director off the ground. This decision was made by the two after they saw Leigh direct “Bleak Moments” at the Open Space Theater. Though Finney and Medwin could boast such illustrious acting careers, I personally would also hope that they would be as proud as to have helped start the career of our Mr. Leigh.

Norman Sings Us A Sad One in “Bleak Moments”

I was once asked by my friend Charlie some thirty years ago, shortly after I described “Bleak Moments” to him and before I shoved a VHS copy of the film into my player; “Why would you ever want to watch something that would make everything seem so hopeless for decent people?” A question I really respected at the time and one that made me wonder for years to come. Though this answer is some thirty years late, I think that in the case of “Bleak Moments,” you feel there is a poetic beauty in even the saddest moments of the film because as much as you hope that characters like Sylvia and Paul could just rise above the troubles that have been bestowed upon them, you are moved to see how they delicately maintain themselves in the face of it all.

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