Mike Leigh: 101
I’ve been wanting to talk about this movie for a long time now, and with the recent DVD release of another Mike Leigh film (Happy-Go-Lucky), I figure it’s as good a time as any to talk about one of Leigh’s early masterpieces and the method behind this British director’s madness.
Mike Leigh started his film career in the 1970’s with 9 television plays that changed the rules of how film narrative worked. Instead of focusing on a traditional story arc, Leigh’s films relied intensely on characters. He and his actors would go to great lengths to provide honest characters that were so real they would become the story. We’ll get into the mechanics of this later, but for now it’s important to note that Leigh still follows this method he developed in the 70’s, and still there is no one else making films this way.
Nuts in May was Leigh’s fourth film. In it we meet Keith and Candice Marie: two health-conscience hippies/yuppies on holiday looking for a relaxing week of camping and site-seeing in Southwest England. Keith has planned a trip for them and aims for the couple to have as much organized fun as possible. When things happen that he didn’t plan for, like campers setting up too close or playing loud music, Keith can’t handle it. That’s the movie: A couple goes camping, and it’s hilarious. The only way Leigh makes this work is by collaborating with the actors to create solid characters, so nothing ever feels forced and it’s always interesting.
“Economics are at the root of quite a few of the world’s problems.”
-Keith Pratt on the accredation system for cow herds and how it relates to the pasteurization process.
We learn very early in the film that Keith is a control freak, and his wife is naive to the point of being childlike. Keith basically tells Candice Marie to do something, and she either does it or asks a million questions about it. Neither outcome is really satisfactory to Keith, and we learn that basically he is unable to have fun in any real way. There is always a right way to do things, and Keith has to have it that way or no way at all. Much of the comedy comes from moments where Keith tries to teach someone something that they either already know how to do, or are not at all interested in learning. Disinterest is something that Keith doesn’t even notice, and so we are treated to long-winded explanations on everything from shot composition when using a camera to the inner workings of a thermometer. Keith takes any subject and exhausts it beyond comprehension. In one scene, Keith and Candice Marie sing one of their original songs for a completely uninterested camper. As they sing the song, Keith explains the verse/chorus structure, and never stops playing his banjo. Even mid song, he manages to destroy any sense of joy or fun. Keith’s ability to humiliate himself and everyone around him has to be seen to be believed.
Issues of class and social structure are explored in great detail. Keith and Candice Marie are people we know well. Late twenties/early thirties, upper middle class, healthy in that fun judgmental way, and if they lived in Richmond, could be found bringing their reusable bags to Ellwood Thompson’s for produce (instead of the Farmers Market because of the lack of accreditation). In the country they meet people of a lower class, and Keith always makes sure they know it. His meticulous analyzing of the smallest details reveals just how much better he thinks he and Candice Marie are. The supporting cast adds to Keith’s neurosis by putting him in situations that he clearly can’t handle. This produces a growing sense of tension that builds to an encounter that in any other film would be over dramatized, but in Nuts in May is dealt with in a completely believable way. Pandering is not to be found in a Mike Leigh film.
“Sorry to trouble you but I was just wondering if you’d like to have a look at the pebbles I’ve just collected?”
Dialogue like that is only possible when spoken sincerely, and Mike Leigh goes to great lengths in all of his films to create sincere characters that we can believe in. He starts with actors that he is interested in working with. Leigh works individually with the main actors to create unique characters through a process of writing and improvisation. Each actor is encouraged to do research based on what their character will be, including everything from reading books that the character would have read to spending a day as the character wandering around and interacting with locals. The actors are not allowed to meet until after their characters have been developed, so the interactions always generate many ideas. Leigh and the actors develop a story around these ideas, but they never write a complete, finalized script (which always makes Leigh’s Oscar nominations for best screenplay amusing). This process creates completely character driven stories that are not for everyone (including Daniel Neman) but for people interested in something different, the results are always fascinating.
If Mike Leigh or this movie sound at all interesting, I definitely encourage you to check out more of the man’s work. Netflix Watch Instantly has many of Leigh’s older films (including this one), and even more can be found at Video Fan. Here are some additional favorites of mine: Happy-Go-Lucky, Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies, and The Kiss of Death.