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The Seasons & Shakespeare With The American Ballet Theater

Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in The Dream. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

At the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Saturday, October 29th, I had the especial privilege of attending a stunning program of mixed repertory featuring the marvelous artists of American Ballet Theater, in the final week of its fall season.

The first half of the event was a dazzling presentation of Frederick Ashton’s incredible The Dream, after William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to Felix Mendelssohn’s wonderful incidental music to the play, arranged by John Lanchbery and here admirably conducted by David LaMarche with the assistance of The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, under the direction of Francisco J. Nuñez. George Balanchine was probably Ashton’s only equal in greatness from the last century as a choreographer and The Dream is a masterpiece—a worthy counterpart to Balanchine’s own setting of the same story and music—and one of the most beautiful productions in the company’s repertoire. The attractive sets and costumes were designed by David Walker and the superlative lighting by John B. Read.

However, the ballet’s success owed as much to its sterling cast of interpreters as to its creators. Cassandra Trenary, who has proven to be a very fine ballerina, excelled in the role of Titania while Daniel Camargo was superb as Oberon. Elwince Magbitang astonished as Puck while Blaine Hoven was a characteristically brilliant Bottom. The four lovers of the play were also remarkable, including Betsy McBride as Helena, Alexandra Basmagy as Hermia, Patrick Frenette as Demetrius, and Sung Woo Han as Lysander. There was strong support from the secondary cast while the superiorcorps de balletwas in perfect form.

The second ballet in the program was also fabulous: Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s magnificent The Seasons, set to Alexander Glazunov’s delightful score—originally written for the immortal Marius Petipa—sensitively conducted by Charles Barker. Ratmansky—whose exquisite Whipped Cream was presented the previous week—is probably the greatest living choreographer andThe Seasonsis one of his best works. The splendid, colorful costumes were designed by Robert Perdziola.

This ballet too featured a superlative cast. The first section, “Winter,” was danced by Jarod Curley as Winter, Zimmi Coker as Frost, Ingrid Thoms as Ice, Sunmi Park as Hail, and Zhong-Jing Fang as Snow. In “Spring,” Joo Won Ahn was exceptional as Zephyr, alongside McBride again as the Rose and Fangqi Li as the Swallow. In “Summer,” Hee Seo shone as the Spirit of the Corn, with Michael de la Nuez as the Faun, and Melvin Lawovi and Jonathan Klein as Satyrs. Finally, “Autumn” featured Courtney Shealy as Bacchante and Hoven again terrific as Bacchus. The members of the graceful secondary cast are too numerous to be cited by name while thecorps de balletwas again wondrous.

I look forward to the return of this fantastic company next spring.

"Microfictions Vol. 3" Blends Sci-fi Concepts & Classical Music

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic with Roomful of Teeth performing world premiere of Caroline Shaw's "Microfictions, Vol. 3".Photo by Chris Lee

At the new David Geffen Hall—now aesthetically and acoustically enhanced—at Lincoln Center, on Sunday, October 23rd, I had the excellent fortune to attend a terrific matinee appearance of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.

The program reached its apotheosis with its first presentation , a sterling realization of Claude Debussy’s glorious Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the greatest works in the history of music. The eminent vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, then joined the musicians for a compelling performance of the US Premiere of Caroline Shaw’s impressive Microfictions, Vol. 3. About the composer, the note for the program states that: “In 2019 she was one of 19 women composers selected by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19, the commissioning initiative to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the US the right to vote; Microfictions, Vol. 3 is the result.” It adds that Shaw

told the Dutch newspaper de Volksrant, “in my music I try to create a garden, a space where you feel, even for a moment, the breath of existence.” Much of Shaw’s work remains centered on vocal music and string ensembles.

It also explains that the work “is part of a series that Shaw began in 2021, inspired by the Twitter microfiction of T.R. Darling.”  Shaw’s own comment on the piece is as follows:

Microfictions, Vol. 3 is part of a series exploring my personal, intuitive connection between image and music. When designing a piece, I often begin by thinking of an object, place, person, or any non-musical thing and ask: if that thing were music, what would it sound like? (An orange. A tree. A cacophonous conversation.) That initial analogy rarely holds as a rigorous compositional system, but it does guide my intuition: imagining unusual juxtapositions; playing with triads as if they are blocks to be broken and tossed around; finger painting with harmony and texture with the kind of wonder and joy I felt about music as a child; pushing against my own inherited expectations of form.

I began this Microfictions series inspired by the work of T.R. Darling and other writers of micro science fiction (within a tweet’s 280 characters). For each movement, I would keep a log of different images or narratives that came to mind, allowing words and music to shape each other along the way. The resulting movement titles are my crafted distillations of those logs into something vivid, surreal, and playful — a space where the impossible colorfully coexists with the utterly familiar. Ultimately there is no right way to hear or understand this music, but I hope that these (very) short stories can simply be a delightful frame for the experience of creative listening and imagination.

The narrative titles of the work’s five sections are:

I. A filament of rust threaded through the pixelated chord structure of an old-growth forest.

II. Anton Webern steered his blue pickup into a field where grasses grew ten stories tall and the wind carried the weight of suggestion.

III. The ground beneath chattered relentlessly, its hard edge tempered only by elastic intonation and parenthetical umami.

IV. Suspended in iridescent fog, the chimes congealed to form a hyaline tsunami.

V. Clocks glided by each other through the diaphanous din of last year’s song of the summer. Time divided work and rest.

After an intermission, the program concluded marvelously with a rewarding account of Florence Price’s engaging Symphony No. 4. Program annotator Imani Danielle Mosley, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Florida, had this to say about the background of the piece and its composer:

The inspiration for her Fourth Symphony is unclear; we do not know if it was written for a contest, like her First Symphony, or some other occasion. Archival materials do tell us that Price was eager to have the work heard. In 1942 she wrote to Artur Rodziński, then conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra (and later Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), asking him to “examine some of [my] orchestral work .... I also have a symphony (D minor) which has not yet been performed publicly.”

Rodziński did not look over the work, and Price’s Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in her lifetime. It was one of her compositions that were found in her former summer home outside of St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009, more than a half-century after she died. This led to its premiere in 2018 by the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony, which subsequently released the only current recording of the work.

The elaborate opening movement—animated by the theme of the beautiful spiritual, “Wade in the Water”—like the piece as a whole, is within the mainstream of American compositional style of the era in which it was written and contains some jazzy inflections. The ensuing Andante cantabile has some of the work’s loveliest music, with melodies also recalling Negro spirituals. The populist strain of the symphony is most visible in the Allegro, based on the African-American dance-form, the Juba, while the finale is the score’s most exuberant movement. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a fabulous encore: Antonín Dvořák’s delightful Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8.

I look forward to the remainder of the season.

King Vidor Reigns Over Lincoln Center As Part of Retrospective


From August 5th through the 14th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a major retrospective devoted to the director, King Vidor. Below is a commentary on the screenings that I attended.

La Bohème from 1926 was Vidor’s next work after his very successful The Big Parade—one of his strongest silent films, unfortunately screened in this series only in a digital format. It is based on Henri Murger’s famous Scenes of Bohemian Life, the source for Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, and was a project selected by Lillian Gish who was then at the peak of her career. Her magnificent performance as Mimi is one of the most memorable aspects of this moving work. Although the director had some disagreements with the actress about her approach, he nonetheless went on to say that “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.” (John Gilbert who was the lead in Vidor’s previous feature, is also superb as Rodolfe.) Gish had substantial control over the production but the material was evidently congenial to the director who here displays his mastery of melodrama, a genre of which he was to become one of the finest practitioners in Hollywood, alongside such sterling exemplars as D.W. Griffith, John M. Stahl, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli, among others. La Bohème features striking photography by Hendrik Sartov, who had worked with Gish previously, but regrettably the original elements do not appear to have survived in a pristine state, diminishing what visual pleasures it must have originally afforded. The presentation featured live piano accompaniment by the excellent Donald Sosin who performed along with all the silents in the series.

The Crowd, another of Vidor’s most important silent films and one of his most expressionistic despite its commitment to naturalism, is about the marital and economic struggles of a low-level worker in a large New York firm. It too has an extraordinary pair of leads: Eleanor Boardman—the director’s second wife—and James Murray, whom he discovered and who went on to have a tragic life that later inspired an unproduced screenplay by the filmmaker. The theme of the American Dream was to prove a crucial one in the Vidor’s career and his work displays a remarkable class-consciousness—he went on to re-use these protagonists in his even greater Our Daily Bread of 1934, one of the most left-wing films ever produced in Hollywood, which was screened in this series only in a digital format. A bravura crane shot traversing an endless series of office desks would seem to have influenced similar shots in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Orson Welles’s The Trial. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard said, “Make films about the people, they said; but The Crowd had already been made, so why remake it?” I hope someday to have an opportunity to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the film with a score by Carl Davis. Dave Kehr’s capsule review for the Chicago Reader is worth quoting:

King Vidor’s 1928 classic, with James Murray as the “average man” picked out of the crowd by Vidor’s gliding camera. In his autobiography, Vidor claims he sold the project to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit war film,The Big Parade: “Life is like a battle, isn’t it?” Accordingly, the misfortunes that befall Murray are hardly average, but the melodramatic elements are integral to Vidor’s vision of individual struggle. The camera style owes something to Murnau, but the sense of space—the vast environments that define and attack his protagonists—is Vidor’s own.

Immediately after The Crowd—and released in the same year—Vidor directed two romantic comedies—a genre that he only infrequently essayed—that demonstrated the delightful talents of the underrated Marion Davies. The first, The Patsy, is the more substantial. In a hilarious sequence, the actress does amazing impressions of Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri. Marie Dressler is amusing too as the character’s unsympathetic mother. The second film, Show People, a spoof of Hollywood, is slighter but quite charming and co-stars the appealing William Haines as the love interest of the heroine. Davies does an equally astonishing impression of Gloria Swanson here.

Vidor’s subsequent feature of the following year, Hallelujah, a religious musical with an all-Black cast, is one of his most perfectly realized and was a personal project partly financed with his own salary, although it proved to be a popular success. The director commented on the inspiration for the film:

I used to watch the negroes in the South, which was my home. I studied their music, and I used to wonder at the pent-up romance in them.

In his 1953 autobiography, A Tree is a Tree, he said about Hallelujah:

The sincerity and fervour of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.

The film is also notable for the indelible first screen appearance of Nina Mae McKinney.

Street Scene, from 1931, is an adaptation of the eponymous, acclaimed play by Elmer Rice—it later became an opera with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes—but, like Hallelujah, is photographed, very creatively, like a silent movie, despite almost entirely being filmed on a single set. The distinguished source, however, like that of many stage works turned into motion pictures, does seem to hamper the film somewhat—one would have liked for a scenarist to have re-written the dialogue for the new medium. One asset is the incomparably beautiful Sylvia Sidney in the lead role. The justly famous theme music—it is a clever pastiche of George Gershwin—is by Alfred Newman.

Vidor’s following feature, The Champ, released the same year and which was an enormous success, is less original and more conventional in style but nonetheless incredibly moving, especially for Jackie Cooper’s astounding child performance. The film helped revive Wallace Beery’s career. As heartbreaking but more complex as a work of social criticism is Stella Dallas from 1937, a superior remake of the excellent Henry King silent of the same name—again with a Newman score and elegantly photographed by the superb Rudolph Maté. The effect of the director’s accomplishedmise-en-scèneis amplified by a marvelous cast, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Shirley, and Alan Hale.

Vidor’s next work, The Citadel, released the following year—an adaptation of a novel by A.J. Cronin, who wrote the classic novel, The Stars Look Down, famously filmed by Carol Reed—seems less personally charged despite Vidor’s admiration of the material but is certainly worth seeing. Handsomely photographed by Harry Stradling, it too has a wonderful cast, including Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Francis L. Sullivan, Cecil Parker, Nora Swinburne, and Felix Aylmer.

After this, Vidor contributed most of the outstanding black-and-white Kansas sequences in David O. Selznick’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as those of “Over the Rainbow” And “We’re Off to See the Wizard”; he then completed a masterpiece, Northwest Passage of 1940—shot in glorious Technicolor—a patriotic itinerary Western about the French and Indian Wars of the eighteenth century, which was screened in an astonishing 35-millimeter print from the archive of the George Eastman Museum. The director replaced W. S. Van Dyke after shooting began but his visual imagination was wholly engaged despite this. The cast includes a charismatic Spencer Tracy and an unusually good Robert Young in lead roles.

His following film, Comrade X, released the same year, is an entertaining, if lightweight and less personal, comedy—an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka—attractively photographedby Joseph Ruttenberg, and with an amusing screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, with uncredited work by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Of the leads, Clark Gable is characteristically excellent while the stunningly gorgeous Hedy Lamarr is surprisingly so. The fine secondary cast includes Eve Arden, Felix Bressart, Oscar Homolka, and Sig Rumann, the latter especially hilarious.

Vidor attempted something more significant and more in line with his thematic preoccupations with his next opus, which was released the following year, H.M. Pulham, Esq.,from the novel by John P. Marquand, which Harold Bloom unpredictably prophesied—in The Western Canon—would prove to be a permanent book. Certainly a creditable achievement, the film nonetheless seemed to me to be less imposing than one might have expected given the director’s expected affinity for the material. One weakness may be Robert Young’s performance which lacks the pathos and wit that Ronald Colman brought to a comparable role in a more satisfying adaptation of a work by the same author, The Late George Apley, by a filmmaker of comparable stature to Vidor, Joseph Mankiewicz. Lamarr is again unusually convincing as the bewitching object of his youthful affection. The supporting cast includes Ruth Hussey, Charles Coburn, and Van Heflin. The director’s note on H.M. Pulham, Esq. is worth citing:

Here was American life today told in terms of American humor, romance and a generous sprinkling of our home-grown satire. In addition, the story covered a span of more than 30 years, and I saw a chance to present a sort of American cavalcade of the significant events of this century while telling the human story of an American gentleman.

The book is written in the first person. It was all told from Harry Pulham's viewpoint. This is responsible for much of the deep human psychology of the novel. Here was a challenge. Could a motion picture be told completely in the first person? It would mean that nothing could happen in the entire picture unless it was seen or witnessed or experienced by Pulham. We decided to try it. The result is that in the picture nothing happens that is not experienced by Pulham.

So Robert Young is in every scene of the picture or is in the room when every scene happens. In the case of telephone conversations, no one is shown at the other end of the line. We only hear what Pulham hears. We do not see the other person at any time, for this would be letting the audience see something that Harry Pulham didn't see.

Much more ambitious was Vidor’s next work, An American Romance, a very personal project released in 1944, the third part of an informal “War, Wheat and Steel” trilogy with The Big Parade and Our Daily Bread.(The novelist John Fante was an uncredited contributor to the screenplay.) Unhappily, the film was severely cut by about fifty minutes and was unsuccessful commercially. What remains, artfully photographed in Technicolor by Harold Rosson, is of genuine interest, however, if maybe not amongst the director’s supreme achievements—two sequences of industrial assembly are especially compelling. An American Romance stars Brian Donlevy—whom the director thought was miscast—and Ann Richards. (Vidor originally wanted Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten, all of whom were unavailable.) This too was shown in stellar 35-millimeter print from the George Eastman Museum. In A Tree is a Tree, Vidor had this to say about his experience after finishing the film:

When the picture was previewed in Inglewood, Louis B. Mayer came to me on the sidewalk in front of the theater, put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'I've just seen the greatest picture our company ever made'. However, an order came from the New York office to cut half an hour. They cut the human elements of the story instead of the documentary sections, explaining that this was the only way a half hour could be taken out without complications in the musical soundtrack. In other words, the film was edited according to the soundtrack and not according to the inherent story values. At the lowest emotional level I have reached since I have been on Hollywood, I went to my office, packed up and moved out of the studio. The picture was not a box office success. Many of the inhabitants of Hollywood and Beverly Hills have never seen the film and many do not even know it was made. I spent 3 years of my life on the project and MGM spent close to $3,000,000.

His next movie, the grandiose Duel in the Sun from 1946, a sublime Western photographed in dazzling Technicolor, is mesmerizing despite considerable interference from its producer, Selznick, as well as cuts demanded by ratings review boards. Disagreements with Selznick purportedly caused Vidor to quit the project two days before the end of shooting. Like other prominent films of the producer, such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, uncredited direction was undertaken by many hands, including Josef von Sternberg (who also served as color consultant), William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Otto Brower, Sidney Franklin, along with Selznick himself but, even so, Vidor’s vision is discernible. (Duel in the Sun also had three cinematographers: Rosson again, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan.) The source for the story is a novel by Niven Busch whose distinguished contributions as a screenwriter include Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, and uncredited work on Minnelli’s Gigi; he also wrote the book that was the basis for Anthony Mann’s The Furies. Jennifer Jones is uncommonly convincing in the lead role and breathtakingly alluring. Gregory Peck gives a brilliant, atypical performance as her rakish lover. The secondary cast is probably the most notable of Vidor’s entire career, including Gish again, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Sidney Blackmer, Otto Kruger and, above all, Butterfly McQueen. The film was screened in a superlative 35-millimeter print from the Museum of Modern Art.

The erotic intensity of Duel in the Sun is continued in The Fountainhead from 1949–after Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel—one of the pinnacles of Vidor’s œuvre. The director’s ambivalence toward the author’s ideology generates a productive tension with the material. Rand’s dialogue is deliriously crazy; for the director, it serves as one vehicle for the expression of the larger-than-life passions that surge through his characters’ lives, as one can observe in many of his most essential films, such as Hallelujah, Duel in the Sun, and later in Beyond the Forest—released the same year but disappointingly not screened in this series—and Ruby Gentry from 1952, shown here only in a 16-millimeter print. With his cinematographer, Robert Burks—most celebrated for his terrific collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock—he found the most enthralling visual correlatives for these almost cosmic energies. A glamorous and entrancing Patricia Neal is a revelation in a cast that includes Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, and Ray Collins.

Vidor’s Hollywood career concluded with Solomon and Sheba in 1958, a difficult production that he did not judge as fully successful. In 1964, he executed a very strange essay-film in 16-millimeter Kodachrome, Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics, which reflects his religious views—he was a Christian Scientist—and which is a kind of brief for philosophical idealism. (For an intriguing defense of this work, as well as an interpretation of the director’s style, see Fred Camper’s fascinating article, “The Myth of the Avant-Garde Film.”) He completed another short documentary in 16-millimeter in 1980, Metaphor, mostly a record of conversations on the title’s subject between Vidor and Andrew Wyeth, his favorite American painter. Wyeth’s favorite film was The Big Parade, which he claimed to have seen at least 180 times! Both films were screened in a digital format. As a footnote to the retrospective, the final program also featured Journey to Galveston, also from 1980, an estimable short 16-millimeter portrait of Vidor—shown in digital—at his ranch, directed by Catherine Berge, who talked at length about the background to the film before the presentation.

The Quiet Desperation of Mike Leigh at Lincoln Center

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky
From May 27th through June 8th, 2022, Film at Lincoln Center presented Human Conditions: The Films of Mike Leigh, a very rewarding retrospective of the brilliant English director. Unfortunately, most of the works were not screened in their correct formats—most of his films that were photographed in 35-millimeter were screened in digital—but it was a wonderful opportunity to see or re-see those that were. I’ve here appended some commentary on the titles I viewed.
Although Leigh’s work forms a unity, the beautiful High Hopes from 1988—his first theatrical feature since his extraordinary debut, Bleak Moments, from 1971—seems like a breakthrough into what subsequently became Leigh’s characteristic mode, although it is not a simple matter to explain in virtue of what the distinction lies—one intuition is that the later works employ a certain schematism in scenario construction whereas the scenes in the earlier films are closer in character to sketches paratactically organized rather than architecturally plotted. Meantime, a terrific film from 1983, in this way appears closer to productions like Bleak Moments and the charming Nuts in May from 1977 than to the works inaugurated by High Hopes—which proved also to be Leigh’s breakout film internationally—although Meantime’s focus on the bleakness of English working-class life and family conflict were to continue to be central preoccupations. Film at Lincoln Center’s program note is as follows:
An episodic comic drama originally produced for Britain’s Channel 4, Meantime centers on the Pollocks, an East End–dwelling working-class family trying to keep the lights on amid the recession during Thatcher’s premiership. Mavis (Pam Ferris) works while her ornery husband Frank (Jeff Robert) and their sons Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels) collect unemployment; meanwhile, Mavis’s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband (Alfred Molina) enjoy the comforts of life in the comparatively posh suburb of Chigwell. We follow the characters across a host of familiar settings—pubs, flats, the unemployment office—as they just try to get by, with Leigh deftly interweaving these scenes to produce a dimensional and sobering portrait of the indignities of life on the dole. 
Although critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman have astutely remarked upon a Manichaenism of “good souls and villains” (see below) in Leigh’s work, it is interesting that another noted feature of the director’s oeuvre is its ambiguity, which is one o fMeantime’s great strengths—here as often elsewhere, this film invites the viewer to interpret which of the characters’ possible, and possibly contradictory, motives may be at play as well as how benign or malign they are. As usual with Leigh, Meantime is populated by multiple extraordinary performances—I single out for special mention those of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, when they were unknowns, and the now undervalued Phil Daniels. Also worth citing is the quality of the digital transfer in what is described as a 2K “restoration.” 
The latter is also true of the accompanying short film, the wonderful, comic—if not without its “bleak moments”—The Short and Curlies, which is especially memorable for an early appearance of a hilarious David Thewlis, and is one more step towards the artistic maturity of High Hopes.The program note for it reads: “A woman (Sylvestra Le Touzel) navigates a romance with a man (David Thewlis) who never ceases cracking jokes, while also reporting back on it to her adoring hairdresser mother.”
Film at Lincoln Center’s program note on the impressively photographed Another Year from 2002 reads as follows:
The lives of three proletarian families in London form the fabric of Leigh’s eighth theatrical feature, another vividly traced and superlatively acted portrait of everyday working-class struggle. Cab driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his grocery-cashier wife Penny (Lesley Manville) deal with the fallout of their heavyset son’s (James Corden) heart attack, while Penny’s colleague Maureen (Ruth Sheen) contends with her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy; meanwhile, Phil’s fellow driver Ron’s (Paul Jesson) homelife grows ever more fraught as his teenage daughter (Sally Hawkins) seemingly has eyes for two different boys, one of whom may be stalking her.
The outstanding critic J. Hoberman in The Village Voice commented usefully on the work:
The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.
Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter. 
In Leigh’s period films, such as his incredible Topsy-Turvy from 1999—about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan—and Vera Drake from 2004—one of his strongest and visually richest works—the schematism remarked upon above was considerably relaxed. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s capsule for The Chicago Reader described it thus:
Mike Leigh paints a warm and tragic portrait of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a good-hearted wife and mother in 1950 London who works as a cleaning lady but also as an unpaid abortionist. Much of the film’s potency derives from its personal edge–the passion for precise period decor, the title dedicating the film to Leigh’s parents (a doctor and midwife), and even the childlike classification of many characters as either good souls or villains. Leigh evokes British director Terence Davies in a brief cinemagoing scene, and the same innocence Davies brought to his stories of postwar Britain informs this parable of a person whose good works land her in prison (also the great theme of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51). The detailing of Vera’s family is close to perfection. 
Hoberman in The Village Voice fully commented:
Leigh constructs the movie as an accretion of briskly delineated scenes: Vera and husband attending a picture show, Vera helping her plain daughter find a mate. The vignettes cut across class lines—moving from cramped, dingy flats to the palatial homes that Vera cleans, and showing, among other things, the means by which a poor little rich girl [ . . . ] terminates the fruit of a casual date rape. 
He added:
Vera Drake divides neatly in two. As customary with Leigh, there’s a Manichaean streak—the selfish characters are truly odious. But what’s most provocative is the way that comfy social drama turns into unrelenting weepie [ . . . . ] As the dramatic space constricts and celestial music builds, our Vera is turned, most horribly, to stone. Her anguished solitude as she is judged by a world of powerful men in uniforms and wigs cannot help but invoke the passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan [ . . . . ] Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh’s movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.
About Happy-Go-Lucky from 2008, the program note reads:
Played with star-making sparkle by Leigh stock-company player Sally Hawkins (whose performance earned her the Best Actress Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlinale), Poppy is a single, 30-year-old elementary school teacher whose relentless optimism is not always welcome. She has to deal with a child being bullied, and she’s unnerved while taking driving lessons from a bitter, racist, and damaged instructor (a wonderful Eddie Marsan), as antisocial as Poppy is trusting and open.
Hoberman in The Village Voice said: “There’s nothing aristocratic about Poppy: She’s a modestly gaudy people’s heroine industriously repairing the social world, one frayed interaction at a time.”
He noted illuminatingly:
As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is “less a dramatic figure than an edifying one,” and, in writingThe Idiot, the author was urgently seeking something beyond art—namely that which “man can be.” It would be unfair to burden the entertaining and occasionally glib Happy-Go-Lucky with such weighty intent, but, for all his reputation as a sour miserablist, Leigh has made some blatantly utopian movies—most obviously his paean to popular art, Topsy-Turvy, and, in a different register, the pro-choice passion playVera Drake.
More than a few critics were troubled by the unrealistically safe saline abortions performed byVera Drake‘s angelic outlaw heroine. But in opposing a criminal state, this warmhearted busybody embodied the promise of a more enlightened social order—the safe, reassuring abortionist of the future. So it is with the altruistic Poppy, whose adult devotion to education and occasionally expressed childish desire to fly seem to herald a further stage of human development.
The program note for Another Year from 2010 summarizes it this way:
Another Year observes four seasons in the lives of longtime married couple Tom and Gerri (the marvelous Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen); their 30-year-old bachelor son Joe (Oliver Maltman); and Gerri’s single, middle-aged work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). A houseguest so frequent she’s practically family, Mary at first seems a harmless sad sack, drinking too much and bemoaning her failures in life and love. But as time passes, and summer gives way to fall, Mary’s depression grows, and her behavior becomes ever more erratic.
Jonathan Romney astutely observed about the film in The Independent:
For all its undemonstrative realism, there are bold tones of expressionism to Another Year. They're present in the broader strokes of some of the acting – in the protective personae that Mary and Ken have created for themselves – and in the look of the winter section, where all warmth and colour are bled out of the visuals as the film contemplates death, loneliness and life's unhealed wounds.
Mr. Turner from 2014, a biographical film focusing on the last twenty-five years of the life of the greatest of English painters, J.M.W. Turner, was—along with Topsy-Turvy—Leigh’s most ambitious film to that date. I discerned a connection with Jean Renoir here—an influence upon the director that he has acknowledged—not so much in that director’s humanism or warmth, as in the texture of the quotidian, although Renoir’s deployment of the permeable frame—which evokes the world beyond it—contrasts with the relative conservatism of Leigh’s style—with respect to narrative structure, however, this is probably the director’s most advanced work. This was the filmmaker’s first movie shot with a digital camera and he and his terrific cinematographer Dick Pope exploited its possibilities admirably. Spall powerfully conveys the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, assisted by an amazing supporting cast, including Marion Bailey, Manville, Martin Savage, Dorothy Atkinson, and many others.
Peterloo from 2018, “produced in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre,” the slaughter of workers demanding suffrage reform in Manchester in 1819, is the director’s latest work, and his most ambitious of all. Leigh boldly and successfully contrived to conduct the exposition of the relevant background through speeches and discussions, a reliance on the verbal as weighty as in the films of Joseph Mankiewicz as well as those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, but this strategy is not employed at the expense of the visual interest of the world depicted—the filmmaker is alive to the manifold cinematic splendors of his subject, marvelously achieved again with his longtime collaborator, Pope. The film is notable too for having no protagonist, although he anchors the narrative in one poor family largely employed in the local textile mill but he provides a portrait of the entire social world relevant to the event, including the Prince Regent and his mistress, the local magistrates, the military command, the constabulary and their informers, the mill owners, the press, as well as the reformers. Peterloo will undoubtedly be increasingly esteemed as a classic left-wing political film anatomizing the capitalist transformation of feudal England and the emergence of a new social order. The exceptional Rory Kinnear compellingly inhabits the role of the social reformer, Henry Hunt, whom Leigh observes with Premingerian objectivity. 
I profoundly hope that Leigh can acquire financing for future projects—this retrospective was an inspirational opportunity to revisit his work.

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