Gotta be quick, then. Ten films to chug through. The special stuff is mostly recycled, but the release of Naked is a UK first and there’s a superb new extra with Leigh gassing to all the key actors individually (no David Thewlis, mind). So, on to the movies… Bleak Moments (1971), Meantime (1984) and High Hopes (1985) is Leigh’s trilogy of pre/post-Thatcher social outrage. Meantime is the pick – an urgent and harrowing study of an unemployment-addled London estate, propelled by a titanic trio of performances (Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Phil Daniels). Life Is Sweet (1990) finds Leigh in perkier mood, celebrating (no, not patronising) the working-class whirl of a North London suburban family.
Naked (1993) is his stark masterpiece, a howl into the spiritual void, with Thewlis outstanding as manky Manc prophet-of-rage Johnny. Secrets And Lies (1996), Leigh’s fearless account of an extended family’s unravelling ties, is remembered for the squawking Brenda Blethyn and her Oscar nom. But Timothy Spall steals it as sadsack peacekeeper Maurice (“We’re all in pain! Why can’t we share it?”). After that, Leigh cruised with the keen but flavourless Career Girls (1997), the self-parodic All Or Nothing (2002) and an odd, overstretched biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy (1999). The latest, Vera Drake (2004) is a crisp character essay, Leigh’s deftness with difficult characters slicing through the subject’s grimness. After 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, it’s the second-most unmissable abortion film ever.
Leigh is often lazily tagged as a miserabilist. That’s because, as the master of observational drama, he sees so much more than filmmakers who just use characters as ciphers to shovel along the story. For him, the characters are the story. He burrows in close, opening up their pores and steaming out the seething truths; tracking the emotional journeys of real, rounded people as they struggle and strive and hang on to their humanity. Hardly popcorn-friendly. But, as Leigh says, “Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d take the pins.”