One of the reasons I admire Mike Leigh and consider him one of the greatest writers and directors of all time is the manner in which he presents reality through his films. Each of his films, while differing in tone and central plot, are exquisite meditations on reality and the problems with living in a specific society, usually looking at working-class individuals trying to survive in post-World War II London. One of his earlier films, made for television, also happens to be one of Leigh’s most scathingly bleak reflections on unemployment. The film is Meantime, a film that proves that Leigh had a definite eye for social realism right from the earliest days of his career, with Meantime being one of his most brilliant creations.
Meantime is about the Pollock family. They consist of Mavis (Pam Ferris), the overbearing and bitter matriarch and her husband, Frank (Jeffrey Robert), who is unemployed like their two sons, Mark (Phil Daniels) and Colin (Tim Roth). The young men live their lives free from responsibility, travelling between pubs, street corners and apartments to create some sense of belonging within them, trying to do what they can with the pithy unemployment benefits they can get while they ignore any sense of adulthood by simply acting like immature, juvenile adults who have yet to grow up and embrace responsibility. The film is simply a series of incidents that do not contribute to any grand narrative (as Lyotard said, postmodernism is “incredulity to metanarratives”, and Leigh has shown himself to be the perfect indicator of the intersections between realism and postmodernism, but that’s not a vital point of discussion for this moment), but rather serve to be a hopeless but occasionally amusing account of an ordinary family struggling to do what they can to survive.
Leigh’s films are very often character-driven, and Meantime is a film that depends almost entirely on the actors to provide the progression of the story, because at its heart, Meantime is nothing less than a television film with the same production values one would expect from an early-1980s British televisual movie. However, Meantime is distinctive because of the performances that were given by these actors, who inhabit their roles perfectly, with this film being early additions to the careers of some actors who would go on to be considered some of our most acclaimed and notable performers. It is canny to note that the main role in Meantime is that of Colin, portrayed so wonderfully by Tim Roth. This was not Roth’s acting debut, with a previously notable performance being his star-making turn in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, his film debut. His performance as Colin could not have been further from that of Trevor, the notorious skinhead that launched Roth’s explosive and fascinating career, although there are several intersections between the characters, such as their positioning as victims of a harsh social system that pushes the individual to make difficult decisions and often force them to become less-than-respected members of society. Roth is astounding as Colin, barely speaking (which makes his outbreak at the climax of this film so shocking), but rather serving to be a reactionary character, simply existing as a way for the audience to become intimate with this family through seeing the narrative through Roth’s character’s eyes. Good acting is good reacting, and Roth is able to convey an endless amount of emotion with this character that is heartbreaking beyond belief.
The other lead role in this film comes from Phil Daniels, who is most known (to me at least) for his television work and his appearance in Blur’s iconic music video for their song “Parklife”. Meantime sees him playing Mark, the disobedient, wise-cracking and mischevious older brother who responds to his unemployment by causing trouble and creating tension, and degrading the volatile relationships between individuals. Postmodernism is about deconstruction, and Mark is an inherently deconstructive figure, creating situations that cause the delicate fabric of society to be questioned. Daniel is also absolutely wonderful, and what starts out as a dreadfully annoying character evolves into a complex and nuanced character who shows that there are different ways to survive, and sometimes acting in a way that questions everything, including morals and ethics, can bring about some sense of understanding. In a way, Mark is a forerunner of Mike Leigh’s greatest character, Johnny Fletcher from Naked, a character also seemingly hellbent on using his own lack of restraint of attack social normativity and structures in order to get to the raw and brutal core of the culture he inhabit. It seems like Leigh himself uses these characters to explore his own frustrations with society, and while they might not be very good individuals, they are endlessly chamring and their insights are sometimes fascinating (even if Mark lacks the one good feature of Johnny – intelligence. Mark is a complete idiot, and very little of what he says has any meaning behind it, but it is the intention that matters).
In the supporting capacity, Pam Ferris and Jeffrey Robert play the angst-filled parents who are trying, in vain, to survive. As the breadwinner of the family, Ferris portrays the frustrations towards her position wonderfully, showing Mavis as a complex character who is simply trying to do her best when those in her life choose to their their own lives free of responsibility. Robert was the biggest surprise of the film, playing a character far from the archetypal wise patriarch, rather playing Frank as an equally immature, short-fused dullard like his sons, also choosing the life of laziness in the pursuit of minimal responsibility. The rapport between characters in this film are sometimes amusing, but mostly heartwrenching. It is a raw and brutal exploration of family dynamics, and the central quartet of this film all work together wonderfully to bring this story to life. Special mention has to go to Gary Oldman, who made his screen debut with Meantime, and gives one of his most polarizing performances as the gentle skinhead Coxy who serves no other purpose than to be a negative influence on the lives of Colin and Mark. Oldman just appears occasionally throughout this film and doesn’t contribute very much, but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t completely unforgettable.
Meantime is a film that I can describe in one word: angry. This is a film that may appear to be a little bit more amusing around the edges, with the episodic nature preventing any major central conflict, but it is within this episodic structure that we can see how absolutely and utterly bleak this film is – there is a coarse, heavy anger throbbing throughout this film, with Leigh (at this point a young and revolutionary social realist) expressing his own extreme frustrations within society governed by concepts such as Thatcherism. The film’s structure ends in the same way it began, without any resolution or any development whatsover. For the duration of this film, we are simply a part of the lives of these characters as they go about attempting to survive. The unrelenting anger of this film drives it forward as we explore the underlying tensions that existed in Britain under Margaret Thatcher. This is a film that smartly avoids blaming politics on the plight of the characters, but it is evident throughout that it does take on a very clear approach towards society at the time.
Meantime is an amazing film – often funny, but also deeply moving in its representation of poverty and unemployment. It is a quiet, meaningful film and the cast is absolutely amazing, with Roth and Daniels being standouts. It is beautifully made (entire sequences taking place in close-ups linger on your mind for ages afterwards), and the story is poignant and powerful. Meantime is one of Leigh’s most underrated and less-famous films, but it is also one of his best, because it shows Leigh at his very best – angry, bleak and utterly moving. It stands amongst his greatest works, and deserves every bit of acclaim it receives. Each time I watch a Mike Leigh film, I come away thinking he’s the greatest living filmmaker – and that sentiment continued today with Meantime. An absolutely amazing masterpiece from a true visionary.