Mike Leigh: portraying women as “not just male fantasies”
“I’m a feminist, though that’s not where I came from,” says British award-winning director Mike Leigh of his latest movie “Happy-Go-Lucky”, a comedy featuring Sally Hawkins as the free-spirited heroine.
Hawkins, who plays positive-about-life primary schoolteacher Poppy, took home a Best Actress award for the role at this year’s Berlin Film festival, where the movie was shown prior to its release in different parts of the world.
An ode to the homespun wisdom of always looking on the bright side, Leigh with his trademark kitchen-sink realism shows how irrepressibly positive 30-something Poppy takes all sorts of problems in her stride.
But he also shows how disconcerting this can be to people without a naturally happily predisposition.
“I come from a bourgeois, terribly repressive background from Great Britain in the 50s,” he added. “My whole life has been about personal freedom, many of my films are about that.”
In counter-point to Poppy is her driving instructor Scott — played by Eddie Marsan recently seen in “21 Grams”, “Hancock” and “Gangs of New York” — who is so alienated he cannot handle his infatuation with her.
“The point about Poppy,” Leigh said in an interview, “is she is ultimately serious, she has the capacity to care. But with that she’s open-minded, free-spirited.”
While Poppy was at one with existence, Scott was completely out of touch, he said. “He understands nothing, he’s totally cut off from his emotions, his feelings, his own motivations.”
Leigh, now aged 61, has won multiple Oscar nominations for his slice-of-life films, including the 2004 feature on a backroom abortionist “Vera Drake”, and his 1996 drama about family secrets “Secrets & Lies”.
In many of the films, women play a prime role.
“Though I see the world as a heterosexual male person, my job is to tell a story in a way that makes each character keep its complete integrity, no matter if it’s a man or a woman.”
“As a film-maker, I feel I have to make good parts for women because there aren’t many in the world, parts that are not just male fantasies.”
“Happy-Go-Lucky”, said Leigh, did not have a single message.
“It’s about a multiplicity of things,” he said.
“It’s about being fulfilled by the richness of life, not about joy or happiness, but it has to do with responsibility and work and caring.”
“In all my films, it is not conscious but it comes from my own life, there is a battle, a struggle, a tension between repression and freedom, anarchy and free spirit.”