written and directed by Mike Leigh
starring Marion Bailey, Phil Daniels, Tim Roth, Pam Ferris, Alfred Molina, Jeff Robert, Gary Oldman, Tilly Vosburgh
Life sucks in working class England. In this film everything is dour, nothing brings hope, and intense psychological suffering is simply the way things are. Poor Mavis (Ferris) is the only one with a job in a household overrun with tension, apathy and distress. Her husband Frank (Robert) and two sons Colin (Roth) and Mark (Daniels) are all unemployed and seemingly none too eager to enter the workforce. This is Thatcher?s England and the dole is a daily reality for a considerable number of persons.
The story is basically a series of unquestionably dismal episodes where nothing is solved and hopes are perpetually crushed under the boot of the societal system that created such emptiness to prevail for so many. Colin is trapped in his shyness and finds it to be exceedingly difficult to communicate with anyone. There are many scenes, particularly at the end, where he shuts down completely, terrified, broken by the weight of so many pressures that he does his best to avoid. Mark is more energetic and protective to an extent of Colin. He doesn?t want to be burdened by a job and longs to move away from his parents and experience a more profoundly vital sense of life. Neither son is able to effectively express themselves although Mark is less burdened by the effort it requires.
There is a girl named Hayley (Vosburgh) who moves in and out of the lives of the boys and their odd, spastic skinhead friend Coxy (Oldman in his first screen appearance). Coxy possesses an abundance of nervous energy. He comes off basically as daft and socially untenable. He seems to be always in the mind of creating some kind of mayhem but he satisfies himself with mild intimidation. He and Colin go over to Hayley?s apartment and Coxy proceeds to irritate and threaten her to the point that she is on the verge of tears. Then he mocks her and follows her into her bedroom. It isn?t clear if anything happens between them but Coxy does slam her bedroom door in Colin?s face. However the shots are edited in such a way to suggest that the exchange in Hayley?s bedroom was nonsexual. Indeed, there is no sex in this film?nothing so jubilant and expansive. The characters stay affixed to their miseries ignorant of any other course to take.
The film would be depressing if it wasn?t so funny. I mean, it?s hilarious to watch people stumble about, blind, confused, acutely miserable, brutally oppressed by the limits of their imaginations, utterly devoid of hope. These are characters who are not living. They haven?t completely given up but they do nothing to improve the overall quality of their lives. There are no answers and no magic transformations. Nothing much happens to the characters and the most dramatic moment is when the washing machine door gets stuck and Mavis hauls Colin to the laundromat. Oh, then something happens to one of the windows and they have to call the window guy to fix it. That?s really it for excitement. Otherwise it?s just droning, affectless conversations that don?t so much edify the participants as distract them.
There are some racist moments coming mostly from Coxy. A scene in an elevator showcases his general attitude toward people of ethnicities that are strange and foul to him. It involves a Jamaican who gets into an elevator with Colin and Coxy. There is an exchange and both Coxy and the other man get into fighting mode but the exchange doesn?t escalate beyond mere words. Coxy is wound up and can hardly sit down although he does roll around in a metal drum banging a stick all around it while grunting and expressing a grievous anger that remains mostly repressed.
The desire in the audience is to witness a moment or an event that leads toward some kind of understanding. This is the standard approach to films of this note and everyone goes home relieved when things don?t turn out as horrifically as they might otherwise. Actually, there is an equal pull towards seeing absolute devastation where chaos swallows up the unwitting, helpless victims who merely feed the tenacious machine. In this film there is no such conceit toward satisfaction. Basically its merely a snapshot of a short period of time in the lives of its characters and offers no resolutions into the myriad contradictions and failures that continue to afflict them.
Life for the boys in this film is cigarettes, pool, and the pub. Mark does listen to music as he?s the only one of the three who is truly capable of thinking beyond the hell he is presently enduring. Still, his lack of drive almost guarantees that he will continue to suffer from the same cycle of failure, worthlessness and anger.
There is one character in this film who is better off and seemingly more together as the others. However, underneath the pleasant facade she is just as miserable as her relationship at home with her husband John (Molina) is heavily strained. The boys?s Aunt Barbara (Bailey) is a sort of bubbly character who tries to help Colin by offering him a job painting at her house. She?s sexy in a repressed librarian way and affords an opportunity for Colin to project his own tortured animus upon a healthy vibrant woman who offers him, if nothing else, the ability to observe. His lusts are given a safe outlet and it would be possible to imagine a completely wrecked alternative direction in this film involving a dicey proposition that is better left to the imagination. There?s a scene where she?s just polished a bottle of wine and is crouched in the corner of a room she is attempting to redecorate. John comes home and the tension between them is palpable. The look on her face is aggrieved and confused. She reflects at this moment the basic underlying fear that directs these lives. They are so entrenched in fear they can hardly move lest they confront the source of these mostly imaginary fears.
The performances in this film are all subdued as one would expect with the exception of Gary Oldman. Oldman is a wreck of conflicted, twisted emotion and stomps and snorts his way about this film. He conveys a deeply seated confusion and a fundamental lack of any particular directive which might ease the burden that plagues him. Phil Daniels gives his character a particular motivation to avoid the distress of work and spend as much time at the pub as possible. Daniels captures his character?s anguish and gives the viewer the opportunity to observe someone who might collapse at any time. Tim Roth plays his character as a person who simply cannot engage with other people. Colin is so locked in to his mental fatigue that he hardly moves under his own volition. It?s heartbreaking to watch him suffer so immeasurably although he does take a particularly bold step as the film draws to a close. Marion Bailey plays the lightest character who is proved to only be hiding her pain from the world by masking it with a faux positive outlook.
Overall, this film is bleak, dark, and offers nothing resembling hope. It?s a high tragi-comedy that sears the skin and greatly unnerves the imagination. The characters don?t change and continue to suffer in the same exact way toward the end as they did at the film?s beginning. There is no growth, no character development, and nobody has any epiphanies about what they are supposed to do to improve the general situations of their lives. It?s a portrait of a brief period of time that offers no solutions. Ultimately, it?s calming to see lives so out of balanced by a hysterical inability to fully connect with a world that they perceive deprives them of so much that is necessary to be a fully realized social being. If it?s meant to be a generalized portrayal of life as it actually was, then it truly is depressing and decisive than it appears.