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High Hopes (1988)

Courtesy of Endemol Worldwide Distribution

Main image of High Hopes (1988)
35mm, colour, 112 mins
DirectorMike Leigh
ProductionPortman Productions
CompaniesBritish Screen
 Channel Four
ProducersSimon Channing-Williams, Victor Glynn
Written byMike Leigh
PhotographyRoger Pratt
MusicAndrew Dickson

Cast: Philip Davis (Cyril Bender); Ruth Sheen (Shirley); Edna Doré (Mrs Bender); Philip Jackson (Martin Burke); Heather Tobias (Valerie Burke); Lesley Manville (Laetitia Boothe-Braine); David Bamber (Rupert Boothe-Braine)

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Working-class couple Shirley and Cyril are in conflict over whether they should have children, their problems with 'yuppies' moving into the neighbourhood and outpricing them, and the advent of Cyril's ageing mother's seventieth birthday.

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Seventeen years after his debut feature Bleak Moments (1971), Mike Leigh re-emerged on the big screen with High Hopes (1988). The combination of acerbic social satire and humanity with convincing, finely nuanced performances made it a critical and box-office success in Europe, winning the Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1988.

In an interview, Leigh remarked that "High Hopes is about the frustration at being what you think is a Socialist and whether you do anything about it". A reflection of the scars left by Thatcher's England, the film revolves around working-class, middle-class, and upper-class couples.

Leigh mocks the vapid, yuppie snobs, the Boothe-Braines, to an almost farcical extreme and ridicules Valerie and Martin's petty social-climbing aspirations, and Shirley and Cyril criticise Mrs Bender for voting Conservative in the last general election (commenting on how "working-class Tories stab themselves in the back"). But it would be wrong to describe High Hopes as just another anti-Thatcher diatribe. The film criticises Cyril for his inertia: he stares meditatively at Marx's tombstone, wants "everyone to have enough to eat, places to live, jobs" and labels having families as a "bourgeois game". But when he reproaches Susie for attending Socialist meetings and wanting a revolution and she asks him what he does, he replies, "sit on my arse".

The film's focus, however, is on Mrs Bender, Valerie and Cyril's mother. Her family's behaviour towards her illustrates the social dislocation of Thatcherite Britain. For most of the film, Cyril is intolerant towards her, visiting her out of a sense of obligation rather than love. High-strung Valerie treats her like a baby, often cruel (proposing a birthday toast because "it might be her last"), neglecting important things (Christmas and birthday presents), but playing the perfect daughter when she can show off her middle-class "status" (throwing a dinner party with champagne in her detached house). Shirley is the only family member who shows compassion towards her mother-in-law, offering to take her home in a taxi and consoling her when she is upset.

The debacle of the birthday party precipitates a (possibly much-needed) emotional crisis in Valerie and prompts Cyril to admitting his failings as a son. The serenity of Mrs Bender at the end on the roof terrace to which she, Cyril, and Shirley have come up for air suggests that hopes for a restored humanity are not extinct.

Shalini Chanda

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Video Clips
1. New in town (3:19)
2. Property values (1:54)
3. Meeting Marx (2:52)
4. The birthday party (3:45)
Davis, Philip (1953-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)