Directed by Mike Leigh (1973)
Mike Leigh burst upon my consciousness with his 1993 psychopathological wringer “Naked”, which remains one of my all-time favorite films, and one that’s stood up to repeated viewings. Around that time The Roxie Theater in San Francisco had a retrospective of most of his 70s & 80s TV films, which is how I got to see the phenomenal “Nuts in May”, a total farce about a fussy lefty/hippie camping couple, as well as the relatively more easy-to-view feature films “Life Is Sweet” and “High Hopes”. Since that time I’ve regrettably only found the gumption and time to view Leigh’s newer (post-“Naked”) films as they’ve come out, knowing full well that there were nearly a dozen other heretofore unviewed kitchen-sink realism dramas in his filmography.
Buying a cheap DVD copy of 1973’s BBC TV film “Hard Labour” is my belated attempt to get cracking at completing a more representative overview of one of the great and most singular directors of our time. I see patterns set in this emotional battering ram of a film that turned up later in different guises in “Secrets and Lies” (1996), “Career Girls” (1997) and “All or Nothing” (2002), and In only 70 minutes, Leigh displays the sad working-class lives of repressed, Catholic, none-too-bright Mancunians, resigned with little pleasure to a world of cleaning, arguing, worrying and (for the men and the young) drinking and smoking. Liz Smith plays Mrs. Thornley, a joyless, put-upon mother in a loveless marriage who drifts through the film in a dowdy daze, suffering the slights of others and no doubt tolerating it because, as a nun says to her at one point, “we all must suffer in this life to get to the next one”.
Leigh’s ensemble casts are by and large fantastic to a person, and “Hard Labour” is no exception. These people feel real and are not pretty to look at; they’re the people at whom you never glance on the bus or at the grocer’s. Strangely, Ben Kingsley makes an appearance in this one as an Indian immigrant taxi driver, but the real standouts are Polly Hemingway as bored 20-something daughter Ann, who worries about pregnancy and seems barely to understand how reproduction works, and her father Mr. Thornley, played by Clifford Kershaw in a loutish, aggrieved performance full of physical pain and emotional toil. The scene in which he’s confronted by a superior with the potential loss of his security job guarding a toy warehouse almost made me want to revive the dictatorship of the proletariat right there on the spot.
The Catholic church comes in for deserved ridicule in many places, from the expropriating nun who barges into the Thornley’s house to demand alms in the form of used junk from their home, to Mrs. Thornley’s pseudo-“confession” at the end of the film, during which the priest rolls his eyes, stroked his chin in will-this-ever-end anguish while simultaneously trying to finish his newspaper. There’s a mild undertone of humor throughout, as there almost always is in Leigh films, but the general response generated is sadness – another Leigh hallmark. An excellent early work that presages many good things for my continued explorations.