High Hopes Review

London, the late 1980s. Cyril (Philip Davis) works as a despatch rider and his partner Shirley (Ruth Sheen) for the parks department. There are no kids in their life, though Shirley hints she would like some, but they do own a cactus called Thatcher “because it’s a pain in the arse”. Cyril’s elderly Mum (Edna Doré) is the last remaining council tenant in a rapidly gentrifying street and the yuppies have moved in next door.

Mike Leigh made his feature film debut in 1971 with Bleak Moments in 1971. As the British film industry was in virtual collapse at the time, he established himself on television and stage, producing such memorable television work as Nuts in May, Grown-Ups and especially Abigail’s Party. His reputation was such that he earned himself a BBC2 retrospective in 1983, which was my chance to see many of these plays for the first time. You can see Leigh’s work growing in ambition and complexity, not just in subject matter but in approach. He needed a larger stage, and with the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 he gained one. Meantime was a Film on Four which had festival screenings though no big-screen commercial release. After a final film for the BBC, Four Days in July, Leigh was finally able to return to the cinema, and the result was High Hopes.

High Hopes looks a little like some of his early 1980s television work, though with a greater gloss that 35mm brings (with impeccably naturalistic work from DP Roger Pratt). Like his earlier work, the film was developed via improvisation with his actors, many of whom had worked with Leigh before. This method had often been a stumbling block for attracting financing, as there was no script to show to investors, but it pays off in richly detailed characterisations and performances. All Leigh’s work is character-led, but the extra preparation shows: Cyril and Shirley are one of the most convincing screen couples you’ll ever see, and you can well believe they have a long history together. Although the film is bitter elsewhere, and not sparing of characers such as Cyril’s ruthlessly aspirant sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her husband Martin (Philip Jackson), who the film not especially subtly indicates are Thatcherites to the core, the relationship of Cyril and Shirley displays the warmth that is at the heart of High Hopes.

Leigh would develop his themes and subject matter over the next decade, resulting in his masterpiece to date, Secrets & Lies. High Hopes does have flaws. He’s often accused of caricaturing some of his characters, which is true in the case of the upper-crust couple Laetitia (Lesley Manville) and Rupert Boothe-Braine (David Bamber). The film, made in Margaret Thatcher’s third term as Prime Minister, wears its politics on its sleeve, to the point of being didactic in places.

But there’s much to appreciate, and enjoy, in High Hopes. Leigh’s camerawork is usually self-effacing – though note how he often uses costume and details of production design to comment on the characters – but every so often he makes a choice that’s surprising and right. Take the family argument late on. Many directors would cut back and forth between the various participants. Instead, we hear their voices on the soundtrack but Leigh stays in a long-held close-up of Edna Doré. To have her drop a single tear would be overdoing it: Doré, barely mobile, simply lets her eyes and mouth tell her all we need to know. This is an old, rather lonely woman, her memory not what it was. Some claim that Leigh’s films lack compassion: this scene on its own disproves that.

High Hopes is nearly twenty years old now, and some of its then-contemporary references have dated. But it’s a film that says that ordinary people are important, and that their lives are as worthy of depiction on screen, and as rich a source of drama and comedy, as anyone’s.

Fabulous Films’s release of High Hopes is a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.66:1 and is non-anamorphic. It’s certainly not uncommon for 35mm features to be shot with a camera matte in the ratio of 1.66:1, when the intended ratio is wider. If that was the case with High Hopes then this is effectively an open-matte DVD transfer. The intended aspect ratio is at least 1.75:1 (the IMDB says 1.85:1) so there is no good reason why this couldn’t have had an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio. Owners of widescreen TV sets can of course zoom the image into 16:9, but if you do that you will cut off the hard-of-hearing subtitles, not to mention half of the main menu. As non-anamorphic discs go, this is otherwise okay – a reasonably sharp transfer of a not-especially-old film that has clearly been kept in good condition – but there really is no excuse for non-anamorphic DVDs these days.

High Hopes was a late mono release, and so it is on DVD. As with the camerawork, Leigh’s films’ soundtracks tend to be no-frills affairs, doing what they are asked to do without drawing attention to themselves. In ProLogic mode, this soundtrack plays entirely out of the centre speaker. The all-important dialogue is always clear. Subtitles are available for the feature only, not for any of the extras.

On to the extras, which for the most part are lifted from the 1988 press kit: a synopsis, production notes and biographies for the principal cast and crew. The latter have not been updated. Also on the disc is a stills gallery and a reproduction of the UK theatrical poster. More useful, though brief, is “Mike Leigh on High Hopes” (4:02). In between some clips from the film, he describes High Hopes as the third of three more overtly political films (after Meantime and Four Days in July) and accepts, with some qualification, that the Boothe-Braines are caricatures. A full-length commentary, which Leigh has done for others of his films, would have been better. Finally, there is a contemporary news report (4:09) from when the film was in production, including contributions from Leigh, Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen and Leigh’s biographer Michael Coveney.

High Hopes certainly impressed on its first release. Nowadays, like its follow-up Life is Sweet, it seems a dry run for Leigh’s greater achievements later. There is still lots to enjoy and be moved by. The DVD could certainly be better.

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