Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hard Labour (1973)




Hard Labour, Mike Leigh's first film for the BBC is one he has little time for. He feels it undisciplined, that shooting a film in his native Salford, in the streets he grew up in, meant he was too close to the subject to present it correctly. He also felt a pressure, totally created for himself, to produce a 'Play For Today' film in the manner his producer, Tony Garnett had helped create alongside that other great director, Ken Loach.

Well frankly, I think Leigh's being too hard on himself. Hard Labour is brilliant. A beautifully concise warts and all narrative about a way of life, of suffering in silence, populated by a great cast and a host of typically Leigh characters. 
Liz Smith, now a national treasure, gives a great and rightfully subdued performance as the put upon working class mother whose work is never done. Indeed, Kate Bush's This Woman's Work could be this film's theme. She cleans for a middle class woman who treats her like a second class citizen, she is guilt tripped into giving to the church bring and buy sale by a hectoring, badgering nun, and her biggest weight upon her shoulders is of course her family; principally her loathsome needy husband played brilliantly by Clifford Kershaw, who perfectly embodies that notion of a middle aged man totally uncomfortable in his own skin. 

Smith floats through scenes ghost like, a downtrodden victim of being constantly at the beck and call of others. She is simple in action and seemingly in mind too, but that is turned on its head in the film's climax as we see she is a woman suffering internally; fully aware of her pathetic, careworn existence she turns to her faith for answers and believes herself to be sinful for feeling no love for her leeching husband. Sadly even her faith lets her down; the priest in the confessional more concerned with his newspaper and picking his nose than listening to the awkward, inarticulate pleas for help and understanding in the compartment next to him. Watching her suffer, being ignored and treated like muck by all around her is immensely saddening and frustrating - Leigh nails the audience empathy easily.

Look out too for actors who went onto bigger things; Ben Kingsley for example as the local Asian taxi cab operator and also Bernard Hill, as Smith and Kershaw's eldest. He's clearly his mother's son,  Leigh offering us a neat twist to show the pain in the next generation, albeit in a different gender (Polly Hemingway as his sister seems certain to break away -  like many a strong Leigh woman, she's hampered now but the future looks certain and promising) doomed to suffer in silence at the hands of his wife played by Leigh perrenial and soon to be wife, Alison Steadman, in the first of Leigh's obnoxious upwardly mobile harridans. 

Also of note for music fans is a brief appearance by Alan Erasmus as Hill's mate and fellow mechanic. Erasmus would go on to co-form Factory Records and The Hacienda alongside Tony Wilson. This is a rare chance to see him at, what was, his day job.

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