Written and directed
by Mike Leigh.
Cinematography by Roger Pratt.
Starring: Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Dore, Philip Jackson, Heather Tobias,
Leslie Manville, David Bamber.
Rated: R -- language, nudity, Marxism.
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By Jim Emerson
A few minutes into
Mike Leigh's delightful High Hopes, you may think you know where the movie is
taking you, but believe me, you don't. High Hopes -- in story, characters, tone,
and structure -- refreshingly confounds the humdrum expectations we moviegoers have built
up over years of continuous exposure to formulaic product-pictures.
Shirley, Mother, and Cyril look upon creation from the top of
© 1988 Orion Classics
In its own leisurely and unassuming way, this bracing and unpredictable film dares to
tease, trick and seduce us with savage satirical wit and gentle compassion. In the
process, High Hopes becomes a cleansing and renewing experience, stripping away
those dingy layers of lusterless formula that have accumulated over time (clogging and
dulling your cinematic senses), as if they were so many sticky old coats of waxy yellow
build-up on your linoleum. Writer/director Leigh (who later became well-known in America
with Life is Sweet, Naked, and Secrets & Lies) magically combines
personal and political concerns, outlandish caricature and understated naturalism in a
film that moves you in marvelous and unexpected ways.
We wander casually
into High Hopes, just as wide-eyed as Wayne, a dough-faced small-town boy in his
20s who has just set foot in the bustling, sprawling metropolis of London. Hopelessly
discombobulated by his first exposure to the big city, Wayne asks directions of a
scraggly-bearded and bespectacled motorcyclist named Cyril (Philip Davis). The lost boy's
good-natured naiveté catches Cyril off-guard, and when he can't help him decipher the
inadequate address his mum has provided him, Cyril invites Wayne home to consult a street
This becomes our means of introduction to Shirley (Ruth Sheen), Cyril's girlfriend of a
decade or so, who makes tea for Wayne and acquaints him with their family of cacti -- all
of whom are christened with euphemisms for the male genitals except for the biggest and
prickliest, named (what else?) Thatcher.
Cyril and Shirley
are one of the most convincing couples in modern movies. Former college Marxists, they've
settled down in their mid-30s as working-class intellectuals, trying to adjust the
utopian/revolutionary ideals of their youth to fit the realities of growing up. You can
actually feel their history of mutual growth and accommodation in the unconsciously
intimate rapport they've come to share. Having been shaped slowly and naturally over so
many years of everyday use, it now fits them like a second skin, as comfortable as the
well-weathered jeans and wrinkled woolen sweaters they wear. As they respond to the
unexpected appearance in their lives of this rather odd, orphaned stranger, they
communicate subtly in a fluent private language of touches and glances.
Their ease with each other, and the teasing but nurturing attitude they take toward
Wayne, makes Cyril and Shirley immediately likeable. They're amused (even a bit charmed)
by Wayne's inexperience in the urban world, and even rib him about it a little, but they
genuinely try their best to help him out. We, too, feel somewhat protective of Wayne and
hope these people won't hurt or take advantage of him. When they prove worthy of his (and
our) trust, we want to get to know them better. Cyril, his face obscured behind the bushy
blond beard of an aging radical, and Shirley, with her homely/adorable Shelley Duvall
overbite, certainly don't look like motion picture lead actors. They look too real, like
those character actors to whom you always wish the movie would devote more screen time.
By this point,
having followed him through the credits sequence and into Cyril and Shirley's apartment,
we've pretty much imprinted on Wayne and expect him to lead us through the rest of the
film. We can only hope, then, that Cyril and Shirley will become his friends. (Or maybe
adopt him: making a bed for Wayne in the spare room and tucking him in for the night,
Shirley exhibits a touching, maternal tenderness.) We know that Wayne (and we) will be in
good hands with them -- and, besides, we really like these people and want to hang out
with them some more.
The next morning, Wayne toddles off in search of his sister's place as Cyril and
Shirley wave goodbye and ... (surprise!) the camera remains with Cyril and Shirley. Wayne
turns out to be a minor character in the grand scheme of things, just passing through the
picture. In High Hopes (not unlike life itself), you never know just who is going
to figure prominently, or which seemingly innocuous incidents will turn out to be crucial
events in people's lives.
Not much happens, really. Cyril and Shirley make an afternoon pilgrimage to the tomb of Karl Marx and pay
a visit to Cyril's 70-year-old mum, Mrs. Bender (Edna Dore), who suffers from the early
stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Mrs. Bender lives alone in her semi-detached home, the only
remaining working-class tenant on an otherwise gentrified block. Her dingy housefront
stands out like a single tobacco-stained tooth in a row of gleaming whites.
Mrs. Bender's next-door neighbors are the supercilious Boothe-Braines, Rupert (David
Bamber) and Laeticia (Leslie Manville), a pair of upper-class twits who spend most of
their time chattering and consuming at restaurants, the opera, or their weekend country
house. Leigh presents the Boothe-Braines as hideous, grating (but appallingly funny)
caricatures, in clashing contrast to the low-key, naturalistic manner of Cyril and
Cyril's perpetually hysterical sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) -- all fluttering
eyelashes, twitching limbs and nervously tittering laughter -- lives a materially spoiled
but emotionally unfulfilled middle-class life with her boorish, philandering husband
Martin (Philip Jackson). Neglected by her spouse, Valerie in turn neglects her mother and
devotes most of her time and energy to shopping and doting on her Afghan hound, whom she
In a strategic sequence of loosely-structured, open-ended scenes, Leigh slowly allows
his ideas to emerge through his characters. An underlying/unifying motif that keeps
bobbing to the surface in High Hopes is that of children as our only hopes for the
future, if there is to be one. This is a movie about the responsibilities of being a
parent, and a child, in the '80s.
Shirley aches to
have a child, but Cyril is too disillusioned with society to want to bring a kid into this
uncertain, chaotic, corrupted mess of a world. And yet, we can easily see what good
parents they would be from the way they treat Wayne and Mrs. Bender (who has become
something of a child to her own children). Childless Valerie has a surrogate baby in her
dog, but remains a silly, helpless and irresponsible child herself -- as do the
ridiculous, immature Boothe-Braines.
On a greater scale, the movie examines our responsibilities as citizens, and as a
culture, to care for the elderly, the homeless, and others who cannot care for themselves.
It's a difficult, infuriating tangle of issues and emotions, and Leigh does not (cannot)
provide simple, artificial solutions for his characters, or for society at large.
But for a wondrous moment at the end of the film, High Hopes rises above the mundane confusion of
everyday life and gives us a fleetingly transcendent overview, a glimpse of clarity and
tranquility at the "top o' the world," that restores perspective and revitalizes
hope. That's a rare blessing -- and High Hopes is one precious miracle of a movie.
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