The recent and untimely death of the director Roger Michell seems to mark the end of an era. In a career that straddled theatre, television and film, Michell specialised in mature, mainstream dramas about the problems of grown-up folk written by the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Joe Penhall, Ian McEwan, not to mention his grounding in Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, etc.. Such dramas look increasingly out of place both on screen and in the theatre: a bit lacking in adrenaline, perhaps, or not socially committed enough maybe; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michell generally catered to a thoughtful, greying audience that is quietly dying off. But one item on Roger Michell’s CV stands out, anomalously, from the rest: Notting Hill, his 1999 international smash-hit from Richard Curtis’s script.
You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing success of Mr. Curtis’s brand of light comedy; nor do you need me to tell you that Notting Hill features an unlikely romance between Hugh Grant’s bookseller and Julia Roberts’s Hollywood star, played out in an atmosphere of self-deprecating privilege. My chief memory of this film is inextricably linked with a personal one. One evening, nearly twenty years ago, my sister and I returned from a visit to the pub to find my sister’s lodger watching Notting Hill on television. My sister’s lodger was a young woman in her twenties, a good fifteen or twenty years younger than myself or my sibling, and she was watching the film with touchingly rapt enthusiasm. Our interruption was ill-timed. We walked in at the end of the dinner party scene (the bit that aficionados refer to as the ‘brownie scene‘), just before the moment when Gina McKee’s wheelchair-bound character confesses that she and her partner will never be able to have a baby. At this point, I am afraid that my sister and myself erupted in booze-fuelled laughter, grotesque, immoderate, hysterical laughter, to the genuine distress of the poor girl who had been enjoying the film. She said that the pair of us were ‘evil‘ and went up to bed. I would not wish anyone reading this to think that I come from a family of ghouls: our reaction was a simple and honest (albeit slightly pissed) response to a shabbily manipulative bit of screenwriting. The only reason that character was disabled was so her physical impairment would act as a counterweight to the unexamined entitlement that constituted the entire project: un-earned gravitas tossed onto the prevailing frivolity like olives on a pizza. (Curtis also used a deaf character as a ‘heartwarming’ prop in Four Weddings And A Funeral, so one wonders what other long-term medical conditions he might employ in future projects. Psoriasis perhaps? Lots of jokes there. Tourette’s? Trigeminal Neuralgia? Piles?) But plenty of people loved it, so what do I know? I’m just an old soak who shouts at the TV. And who only writes film criticism when drunk.
In 2008 Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky was released, to a decidedly mixed response. There was a lot of rapturous press about it but there were also murmurings of disquiet. Was the film really that good? There was a sense of critics having to get in line to support it: Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review read as if it had been written at gunpoint. Prompted by the gnashingly furious reaction of a friend who had endured it, I decided to see it for myself. However, I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend and my daughter along with me to the Curzon Soho, so I was forty quid out of pocket before we’d bought any popcorn or hard liquor. That was obviously a bad move, so I was not in the best of moods before the film had even started. The film is a love letter to Sally Hawkins, who plays a London teacher of such artless goodness – to the extent of suggesting actual cognitive impairment – that one dearly wishes to strangle her and everyone else in it (except Eddie Marsan, who essays a terrific turn as a bitter driving instructor). We emerged slightly stupefied, rational thought dispelled as if we had been subjected to a Stasi-sponsored hymn to the state. A few days later I tried to express my thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky in an email to Sight and Sound. I had been reading that venerable organ of record whilst sitting on the toilet, and its lavish and obsequious coverage of Leigh and his film unleashed a wellspring of rage. Fired up by more than just a few drinks, I sat at my laptop and wrote my magisterial take-down of the country’s most successful auteur in a state of gin-soaked certainty. Dilys Powell I was not. Drunk in charge of the Internet – what could possibly go wrong? Well, they printed the damn thing, with my name attached (my real name, that is), as Letter Of The Week in the following issue, prompting quite a flurry of replies. One correspondent – who turned out to be the then-chair of BAFTA – said, in response to my letter, ‘Let me leap to the defence of Mike Leigh – he is our Almodovar, he is our Bunuel.’ (Yes, he really said that.) Drunk or not, I had obviously hit a nerve: Sight and Sound itself reported that box office for Happy-Go-Lucky, initially buoyant, tailed off as word-of-mouth on the film spread. I just wish I had used another name when signing that email: ‘Stephen Poliakoff’ perhaps. Anyway, it followed me around for quite a while; I was even cited in university theses on British cinema. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
With sober hindsight, both films seem weirdly ominous in their complacency. The films of both Curtis and Leigh have exported well, purveying a set of British stereotypes to an international public. This is hardly new – look at the beloved output of Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties – but, post-Brexit, both Notting Hill and Happy-Go-Lucky seem loaded with hubris, in much the same way as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics now seems painfully ill-judged. In their differing ways, both films evince blithe faith in the idea of British level-headedness, a notion that has since been demonstrated to be utterly false. The Ealing films were made at a time of national reckoning – post-war impoverishment, loss of empire, the struggle to adapt to the modern world, etc. – so films like The Titfield Thunderbolt or Passport to Pimlico may be seen as attempts to put on a brave face against the onslaught of disorienting change (whereas Dead Of Night, The Ladykillers, or Kind Hearts And Coronets have their own, more insidious, purposes). If films inform a nation’s sense of identity – and, drunk or not, I would say that they do – then it is not too much of a stretch to wonder how a persistent (and persistently successful) glibness of tone contributes to national exceptionalism. Richard Curtis’s confections of entitlement and Mike Leigh’s caricatures of working class life feed the same beast. We muddle through. Upper or lower class, we know we’re the best, really. After all, we’re so funny.
So what now for Richard Curtis and Mike Leigh? I read somewhere that Curtis wants to do a post-Brexit, post-Trump sequel to Love, Actually. Good luck with that. That film, which Curtis directed himself, was the moment the wheels started to come off his project. Mike Leigh seems to have gone quiet after his 2018 film about the Peterloo massacre. But, diminished or not, they remain looming, windswept monuments on the cinematic landscape. To pursue another dodgy metaphor, are they still the twin popes of British cinema? (With Michael Winterbottom as The Archbishop of Canterbury?) Discuss.