Well after enduring the awful Elfie Hopkins it was a relief to watch something of quality in my Mike Leigh at the BBC boxset.
Grown-Ups is another faultless Play For Today from Mike Leigh. This one seems to bear a lot more of the trademarks, plotting and fusion of comedy and tragedy that Leigh would go on to use so superbly in his feature films.
On the surface, Grown-Ups is about a young married couple moving into a council house next door to the privately owned semi of an older couple, both teachers, one of whom happens to have taught the newlyweds at school just a few years earlier. The couples are played by the very talented and here, very young, quartet of Phil Davis and Lesley Manville and Sam Kelly and Lindsay Duncan respectively.
Davis and Manville's couple are struggling to become independent for themselves in their new home, blighted as they are by the constant intrusive visits of Manville's homebird older sister played by Brenda Blethyn. These constant interruptions all come to a head hilariously yet poignantly one Saturday afternoon roping in the next door neighbours during the fall out. It's a brilliant set piece expertly handled by Leigh and his cast and ranks as one of his best moments.
Beneath the surface though there is much to consider. Kelly's constantly throat clearing emotionally retarded teacher is a Christian and teaches RE at the school, but when push comes to shove during the film's climax/set piece it is his wife, Duncan, who displays the real Christian values he habitually pays lip service to, whilst he stands impotently back. It's perhaps also telling that the film is set and shot in that most religious of cities, Canterbury - yet the backdrop is never hammered home; its their for the audience to pick up if they want to. There's also much to consider in each couple; Davis and Manville endlessly bicker and squabble - he even resorts to physical threats - yet it is clear they love each other very much and that their dialogue is just the only way they know how to communicate. Meanwhile Kelly and Duncan are emotionally arid. Conversations are elliptical and sparse, tellingly populated in the spaces by his endless guttural murmurings. It's interesting to note the inherent similarities of each couple here with those in a previous Leigh film Nuts In May; Kelly and Duncan could easily be the spiritual successors of Keith and Candice-Marie, whilst Manville and Davis are perhaps a more refined version of Finger and Honky. There's certainly similar social play and interaction between them. Lastly, Blethyn as Manville's older sister seems to have missed the boat in life and is content, determined in fact, to live her life vicariously through her sister and her husband who possess the freedom she hasn't the nerve to strike out for herself.
This is also an example of Leigh using a much tighter and more cohesive structure, concentrating on a relatively small but powerful cast of just characters six characters. As with all Leigh's work, the production is created by improv with each character having a clearly defined life and backstory worked out in workshops which will later form the script. Such depth of information may not always make it to the screen but it makes for incredibly well rounded and believable figures, even on the periphery; for me one of the most fascinating character's is Janine Duvitski who plays Manville's mate, Sharon. Looking not unlike an ex of mine here as well
She's a constantly critical, amusing 'nark' who hovers between the key scenes, contributing little but feeling genuine every step of the way. In another filmmakers hands such characters, organically grown in Leigh's working process, would simply not make the final draft and that's a shame. That Leigh includes her - along with Kelly's vocal tics and Davis' gurning scowl, all as important - just shows how he's concerned with bringing a sense of realism to the screen rather than concentrating on the standard depictions and plot contrivances of neat and tidy fiction.