Bleak Moments Review
London. Sylvia (Anne Raitt) works as a secretary for a firm of chartered accountants. At home, she is the sole carer for her mentally disabled, twenty-nine-year-old sister Hilda (Sarah Stephenson). Outside home, she is in a tentative relationship with a teacher, Peter (Eric Allan).
Bleak Moments was Mike Leigh’s first feature, made with £100 from the British Film Institute Production Board and the rest of the £18,000 budget donated by Albert Finney. Before this, Leigh had worked extensively in theatre: Bleak Moments began as a play, with the five central characters and one room, but was expanded into the feature film it became. By the time he made this film, Leigh’s method of working was already in place: building the story through improvisations with the cast. There is no writing credit on Bleak Moments. The strength of the acting and the precise eye for the nuances of the lives of supposedly ordinary people who can’t or won’t communicate with each other are the best things about the film. “Antonioni with jokes” was Leigh’s not-too-serious summing up of his own film.
However, this was Leigh’s first work for any size screen (apart from some shorts), and it’s fair to say that Leigh would become more fluent as a filmmaker. Seventeen years later, with his second cinema feature - High Hopes - you can see how Leigh’s visual sense has developed, honed by his distinguished TV work in between. Also, his ability to mix biting comedy with pathos became more accomplished: while there is certainly humour in Bleak Moments, it’s heavily weighted towards tragedy, a study of unhappy, thwarted lives. Leigh fans will certainly want to see this, but those less sympathetic may find it slow-paced and bleak indeed. It’s a film more of atmosphere and mood and character rather than plot, with emotions restrained and buttoned-down. Perhaps it’s a little too restrained for its own good.
The principal cast are all excellent. Sarah Stephenson is remarkably convincing as Hilda – she and all the actors appearing in the scene in the remedial centre are all non-disabled actors. This remains her only film, though she has done stage and television work since. Eric Allan and Joolia Cappleman are still working actors. But it’s Anne Raitt who holds the film together, underplaying to a fault, conveying emotion with the minutest of gestures. In the supporting cast Liz Smith made her debut here, and Donald Sumpter makes a brief appearance. Amongst the crew, editor Leslie (Les) Blair became a filmmaker in his own right, and camera assistant Roger Pratt is now a leading DP. The film’s actual DP was Bahram Manocheri, who does a fine job.
As with many debut films, the talent is obvious despite the rough spots, the lack of fluency and the constrictions of the low budget. Bleak Moments rewards your patience, but Leigh has done better work since. As with Stephen Frears, who also made one feature in the early Seventies, and Ken Loach, who had made three by then, the virtual collapse of the British film industry caused Leigh to work for television until the middle of the next decade.
Strangely, there are two different editions of Bleak Moments released in the UK on the same day. The one under review is a single dual-layered disc encoded for all regions, released by Soda Pictures. The other (unseen) forms part of the eleven-disc Mike Leigh Film Collection, released by Spirit Entertainment.
Soda’s DVD transfer is 4:3 and hence it’s not anamorphically enhanced. I’m doubtful that that is the correct ratio. 35mm features, even low-budget “experimental” ones, were unlikely to be in Academy Ratio due to the lack of cinemas able to project the films that way. 1.75:1 would be a likely ratio, and the film zooms quite happily to 16:9. Further evidence is on the bonus disc of Spirit’s box set: the clips from Bleak Moments in the Mike Leigh in Conversation documentary and the 2002 South Bank Show included there are all in 16:9 and look just fine. (Admittedly, so are the clips from the definitely 4:3 Abigail’s Party, but those do look cropped.) Some of the problems with this transfer are down to the source materials, such as some scratches and some wobbling during the opening credits. Also, edge enhancement is noticeable in places.
Early in his commentary, Leigh apologises for the occasionally rough soundtrack, the most obvious result of the film’s low budget. There’s some crackling and hiss in places, but the track has a flatness that is something that later Leigh soundtracks would avoid. The soundtrack is mono, as you might expect. Regrettably there are no subtitles.
Spirit’s disc (according to the press release) has no extras, but Soda have provided some for their edition. Primarily this is a commentary by Leigh. He’s proud of his work here, even if he has a tendency to describe certain scenes from his work as “famous”. He does acknowledging the film’s shortcomings, but he’s an engaging talker and well worth listening to. (He also says one F-word which may lift the certificate to a 12: the film itself is a PG as no-one swears in it, which is most unusual for a Leigh film.)
The other extras are a stills gallery, the original poster artwork, and text pages for other DVDs in Soda’s Vintage Collection: Close-Up, After Life and Hôtel du Nord,