High Hopes (1988)

Dir: Mike Leigh, 1988, GBR, 112mins

Cast: Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Edna Dore, Philip Jackson, Heather Tobias, Lesley Manville, David Bamber

 For every ambitious, ultimately hollow, declaration that the class system has eroded British Cinema has consistently mounted a clinically decisive riposte.  “We’ve never had it so good” proclaimed Harold Wilson to a 1960’s public freshly enthralled in the joys of consumerism.  The social realist cycle, that produced Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) amongst others, saw beyond the material and disagreed.  Margaret Thatcher’s tenure justifiably permitted further analysis of political machinations.  My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)and The Ploughman’s Lunch (1987), capture the melting pot of an 80’sBritain on the edge, on the take and hedonistically pursuing the capitalist way for social acceptance and salvation.

High Hopes is arguably the best of these anti-Thatcherite films. Thematically it becomes a kindred spirit to the class orientated agendas of the 60’s, The Iron Lady’s dismissal of class as an issue early in her residency making it all the more potent.  This was Leigh’s second picture, his debut being Bleak Moments (1971), after an almost two decade absence working concurrently in TV and theatre.

The characteristically meandering London narrative focuses upon Kings Cross working class couple Cyril (Davis), a motorcycle courier, and Shirley (Sheen), a broody part-time gardener, both socialists.  Their journey provokes an acerbic satire of society in Thatcher’s Britain through the introduction of Cyril’s sister Valerie (Tobias), husband Martin (Jackson), and the middle-class Rupert (Bamber) and Laeticia (Leigh regular Manville).

The heart of Thatcher’s ideology, the “loadsamoney” free market enterprise culture and emphasis upon ideals intrinsic to an archaic national heritage, leaves Cyril and Shirley cut adrift.  Wine critic Rupert haughtily comments “What made this country great is a place for everyone and everyone in their place”.  There is no longer a place for the traditional working class in Britain.  Cyril notes how his mother, Mrs. Bender (Dore, beautifully understated) is one of the few council tenants still residing in a street now primarily middle class who “buy these houses for sod all and sell them for a fortune”.  The manically desperate Valerie would like to be part of this set and, with Del Boy-esque car dealer Martin’s considerable earnings, spends copiously on the latest tat for their suburban abode.  “It’s a bit noisy innit” quips Cyril as the family gather for his mothers disastrous birthday party, to which Valerie says “I can’t hear anything”.

Criticism can be quite reasonably levelled at the representation of the opposing couples, caricatures that truly epitomise the vulgarity of the era.  However, these are sharply observed and Leigh’s meticulous attention to detail regarding performance particularly resonates through Davis and Sheen, both outstanding.  Their relationship lends High Hopes gravitas and sensitivity amongst the histrionics.

Cyril and Shirley visit Marx’s grave at Highgate cemetery on the anniversary of his death.  “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways.  The point, however is to change it.” reads the epitaph.  “Thing is change what?  It’s a different world now innit.” responds Cyril, his strong beliefs tinged with an air of all consuming bitter acceptance.  He snipes at dippy revolutionary Suzi’s (Judith Scott) claims that the political tide is about to turn, his broken spirit refusing to soldier on and enter the fray.  During a late night conversation about having children, which Cyril is against, Shirley asks what he does want.  “I want everyone to have enough to eat, places to live, jobs.” he reply’s, a touchstone for the pictures humanistic ethos amidst a political backdrop which refuses to contemplate such compassion.  Much underrated, High Hopes is a skilful meld of realism and humour with a transcendent finale that remarkably substitutes pessimism for optimism, despite adversity.

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