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Bleak Moments (1971)

Courtesy of Respectable Films

Main image of Bleak Moments (1971)
35mm, colour, 111 mins
DirectorMike Leigh
Production CompanyAutumn Productions, Memorial Enterprises, BFI Production Board
ProducerLes Blair
ScenarioMike Leigh
PhotographyBahram Manocheri
SongsMike Bradwell

Cast: Anne Raitt (Sylvia); Sarah Stephenson (Hilda); Eric Allan (Peter); Joolia Cappleman (Pat); Mike Bradwell (Norman)

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A shy but intelligent middle-class girl, Sylvia, is barely surviving suburban loneliness while looking after her learning-disabled sister Hilda.

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Bleak Moments (1971) is Mike Leigh's first feature film. The film presents a stark portrayal of human isolation, centring on the failure of personal communication and social interaction. In its uncompromising outlook, it is closer to Meantime (1983) and Naked (1993) than to Leigh's more optimistic works.

Hilda's (Sarah Stephenson) isolation is immediately apparent through her disability, yet equally all of the characters are unable to understand or express themselves and are therefore isolated from each other; seeming both to crave company yet unsure of how to interact.

There is a constant sense of falling short; of things not going as they should, for example, Sylvia's (Anne Raitt) desperate attempts to forge connections and play hostess are countered by her misplaced urgency when offering nuts to her guests and the awful failure of all the characters to engage in successful conversation.

Set in an anonymous and indistinct suburban South London, the film is composed primarily of dark interiors cut with occasional shots of residential streets, mirroring the insular and confined existence of the characters. Similarly, there are few mentions or references to the wider world or even to life outside of the immediate vicinity; when Norman mentions he is going to the West End this seems distant and alien. Even the score - Sylvia's tortured piano playing and Norman's (Mike Bradwell) lacklustre guitar - is generated within the film itself. Leigh has said of the film, "it seemed appropriate to deal with what you might call private acts, loneliness, isolation, non-communication, without looking at the society outside." With such an exclusive focus on character Leigh heightens this sense of solitude, of not belonging.

Bleak Moments is not plot or dialogue driven, nor visually stunning. No extreme or shocking events ensue; no great injustices or hardships are endured. Yet the film is both haunting and disturbing. It is because it is at once unremarkable in its content and yet tangible and true that it is so affecting.

Originally conceived as a stage play, Bleak Moments was made with British Film Institute backing for just £18,000. The film premiered at the London Film Festival and won major awards at the Chicago and Locarno Film Festivals. However, it was poorly received by the public on general release in 1971; it was met with a much warmer reception on its re-release in 1984.

Lucy Skipper

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Video Clips
1. Sylvia and Norman (4:12)
2. Meeting the family (3:19)
Original Poster
Production stills
Albert Finney: The Guardian Interview (1982)
Visit, The (1959)
Blair, Les (1941-)
Davis, Philip (1953-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Smith, Liz (1921-)
The BFI Production Board: The Features
They Started Here