Review: Bleak Moments

Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Moments from the uncompromisingly bleak existence of a secretary, her intellectually disabled sister, aloof and uneasy teacher boyfriend, bizarre neighbour and irritating workmate. Starring: Anne Raitt, Sarah Stephenson, Eric Allan, Joolia Cappleman, Liz Smith and Mike Bradwell.

Watch any of Mike Leigh’s films and you’ll know that he’s not about glamorising or over dramatising, he’s committed to telling real world stories and not skipping over the mundane or awkward. Awkwardness is something that Bleak Moments has in spades, it’s beautifully real in just how uncomfortable and odd it can be. It’s also certainly bleak as advertised, which works in its favour but there’s also an indescribable tinge of hope that lingers in the air. When you look at it as a whole there’s incredibly little that actually happens, a lot of the story is simply quiet moments filled with an atmosphere of repression, frustration and sadness. However, it’s the brilliance of Leigh’s writing that somehow makes that entirely gripping, you’ll likely never have been so on the edge of your seat for a painfully slow and beyond awkward romantic encounter.

One of the key elements that truly keeps you plugged in is Anne Raitt’s performance, she brings a quality that has endless possibilities. She captures the trapped person beneath Sylvia’s drab exterior, with just the slightest changes to facial cues and body language, you can sense the desperation to break free and embrace life. To the point that it almost causes you go into a trance as she gets ever closer to letting out what lies beneath her mousy exterior, and has to dull herself to continue living in the mundane. An interesting aspect is that it’s likely one of the few examples in 20th century cinema where they have a disabled relative who isn’t immediately treated like a burden or that they’re dragging their relatives down, holding them back from a different life. Sylvia and Hilda (Stephenson) have a caring relationship, it has its difficulties like any siblings do but that doesn’t take the focus from simply exploring their daily life. There’s then the oddball mix of people they interact with, the overtly creepy Peter (Allan), who you don’t quite know what to do with, the sweet and kind Norman (Bradwell), the perky, weird Pat (Cappleman) and her boisterous mother (Smith).

Visually Mike Leigh never lets his viewers down, he has an eye for finding detail and sharpness in the everyday. A skill which is only improved when wonderfully remastered into 4K by the BFI. It manages to be still and simultaneously hold a certain positive or enticing energy. There’s a thoughtful movement to it, both in the direction and the pacing, it’s never afraid to really let a moment land. One scene in particular as Sylvia and Peter dine out in a restaurant with only one other, nosy patron, it stunningly labours over that tension and discomfort, refusing to let it go until it’s drained every last drop of an impact.

Bleak Moments is the directorial debut of the now iconic Mike Leigh and in it you can see all the potential that led him to where he is now. Netflix may not yet appreciate his talent for the everyday but he’s a master with the mundane and this is a great example. Anne Raitt is sublimely drab, hiding a tiger beneath, entrancing viewers in the wait for her to break out of her shell and when she does it’s perfect. It’s terrifically awkward and a brilliant portrayal of how we all struggle to get through the slog of daily life.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Newly remastered in 4K by the BFI and on Blu-ray for the very first time 29 November, also available on digital & BFI Player

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