Mike Leigh’s savage-sweet “High Hopes,” which opens Friday at the Goldwyn Pavilion Cinema, Westside, is small in scale and lingering in impact. It’s lovely the first time, even more so the second, when you’ve got the knack of its rhythms. By that time you understand when it is going for braying, lethally funny character assassination--the kind that Evelyn Waugh excelled in and the Pythons dropped into our working vocabulary--and when it’s going to be so quietly charming that its wit is almost subliminal.
Margaret Thatcher’s desperately becalmed Britain is the setting; the seven main characters are sprinkled between high scale and low, with a pair of frantically scrambling arrivistes in the middle.
Cyril and Shirley are the heart of the piece; not quite yet 35 years old, they both work hard at essentially dead-end jobs and try to keep their ideals alive in their clammy, windowless apartment. It’s almost useless, Marxism is gone; around them on every side is proof that the rich are getting richer, that the courage that kept Britons together through World War II has weakened, that some family ties can be ruinous and that gentrification is the death knell of neighborliness.
They are such tight barnacles; unmarried after 10 years together, they’re closer and they take more private delight in each other than most married couples; certainly more so than the specimens that surround them here. Cyril (Philip Davis), who works as a motorcycle messenger, is toothily handsome beneath that explosion of blond hair and beard; Shirley (Ruth Sheen) looks like Shelley Duvall with an engaging overbite. A born nurturer who works on a city gardening crew, Shirley has been after Cyril to let them have a baby; his disgust at what he sees around him won’t allow a hostage to that kind of future.
Not far from their King’s Cross digs, Cyril’s widowed, confused, 70-year-old mother, Mrs. Bender (Edna Dore) is the only holdout in a block where gentrification has hit like a bomb. Easy to tell her council-owned flat; it’s the only one not “smartened up with a lick of paint,” with window boxes and geraniums.
Her brand-new next-door neighbors are the poisonous young aristos, Laetitia and Rupert Booth-Braine, who have bought their flat as a change from their country place. The overbearingly chic Laetitia, “Titty,” who laughs with a sort of sucking gurgle in her throat, is played to appalling perfection by Leslie Manville. (It may be of some comfort to audiences, reeling from her apparently ingrained rudeness to Mrs. Bender, her neighbor, to know that the actress was equally successful as a working-class housewife in Leigh’s 1980 film “Grown-Ups.”)
Rupert (David Bamber), a wine merchant, is out of the same, clenched mold, although he is infinitely more stupid. He has the ability to be in the same room with someone like Mrs. Bender, to talk to her and not hear a syllable she says. To cement our Booth-Braine antipathy, director Leigh gives a quick sample of their ritual sex-games, involving Titty’s teddy bear and some of the film’s most cherishable dialogue.
Sex as payment, bargaining chip or overrated activity is also the operative (or inoperative) word over across town at the “semidetached home” of Cyril’s social climbing sister, Valerie. Val and husband Martin (Heather Tobias and Philip Jackson), a licensed low-life who sells used cars, are the movie’s second moneyed pair, and they’re enough to make you give everything you have to the needy and follow in St. Francis of Assisi’s sandal prints.
Valerie is viciously bossy to her depressed, unhelpful mother who retreats into senile fantasies more every day. (If the film has one weak story detail, it’s that Mrs. Bender acts and moves like a woman a decade older than she is.) Valerie plans a family party for her mother’s “big seven-oh” that’s more an excuse to flaunt their money and florid taste than anything to do with her mother’s wishes.
Played with dead aim, these two couples seem like wild caricatures, the two faces of affectation. Valerie, who has reshaped her accent to be closer to Laetitia’s, and who will turn up with a hat that is a slavish copy of her drop-dead chic, has a desperate social gaiety and a lethal laugh. Laetitia, with her drawling jargon--suggesting that Rupert wear his “d.j.” (dinnah jacket) for the opera that night--has a facade of impregnable selfishness.
When Mrs. Bender absent-mindedly locks herself out of her flat, and is reduced to using the Booth-Braine’s phone, Laetitia treats her like a bit of trash that had blown against her ankles in the street, chivving her to hurry with “Chop chop!” and using the old woman’s request for the bathroom as an exercise of power: “In a minute. . . . “
This is Leigh’s black humor at its most vitriolic, and something mean in us wants the twits to go on forever, to collect more of Laetitia’s mysterious real estate-oriented questions to Mrs. Bender, “Do you have all your original features?” The sneaking suspicion, however, is that four hours at Harrod’s would flush out a whole covey of Booth-Braines, and that a tour of the suburbs would unearth more than one Martin or Valerie.
The actors, many of whom are part of a loose Mike Leigh stock company, are miraculously deft at erasing that line between performing and being. They are masterly, each of them, at the nuances of exchanges between long-established couples, or in the case of Edna Dore’s exceptional Mrs. Bender, at the inward terror and isolation of lonely old people.
Leigh’s point is something a little beyond the entrenched cruelty of caste in Britain, which has solidified into something worse, not better since the brief respite of the Swinging Sixties; it’s the aura of hopelessness that envelopes Cyril, the director’s alter ego. It’s what gives the movie’s title its bitter ring; Cyril has very little hope left in him.
It’s the magnificent Shirley, the only one including Cyril, who takes real time with Mrs. Bender; who knows that children must be brought into the world, who softens life’s harsh edges--even as she raises a prickly cactus instead of a baby. (The cactus, of course, is named Thatcher.) Leigh sees to it that Shirley’s kindness and optimism prevails, giving the film’s rooftop coda a reassuring lift; small, but not to be overlooked.
A Skouras Pictures Inc. release of a Portman Film for Film Four International in association with British Screen. Executive producer Tom Donald. Producers Simon Channing-Williams & Victor Glynn. Writer-director Mike Leigh. Camera Roger Pratt. Editor Jon Gregory. Production designer Diana Charnley. Art director Andrew Rothschild. Music Andrew Dixon. Costumes Lindy Hemming. With Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Dore, Philip Jackson, Heather Tobias, Leslie Manville, David Bamber.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.