Nathan Abrams reflects on the Jewishness of Mike Leigh’s work.
Although he hasn’t made a film since 2018, Mike Leigh is back on the radar. Today, a new edition of Faber’s Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh edited by Amy Raphael is released. The BFI is celebrating his work with a major retrospective at its Southbank home beginning on October 18th, followed by UK-wide re-releases and Blu-rays of his films.
Leigh was the son of a Jewish doctor whose father had come to England from continental Europe. All of his grandparents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants. He grew up in a kosher and Zionist home in Manchester. Leigh’s parents strived ‘to be as English as possible’. A member of the Labor Zionist youth group Habonim, he left the movement in 1960 after becoming disenchanted with Israel’s policies towards the Arabs. He only returned in 1991. Despite his ambivalence towards Israel, Leigh is proud of his Jewish heritage, but he only began to speak about it openly in the mid-1990s.
Leigh also appeared to be consciously avoiding any reference to Judaism and hence did not tend to insert any Jewishness into his films in any direct or explicit fashion. To date, Leigh has made only one work for television – his Hard Labour in 1973 – with any overt reference to his or anyone else’s Jewishness. Where he has done so, he did it on stage in 2005 in his play Two Thousand Years, which has not made it onto either the big or the small screen.
While Leigh feels ‘it’s possible to see a certain kind of Jewish influence,’ in his work he thinks, ‘it would be wrong to label these films “Jewish,”’ as ‘it could be distracting and distorting’. He has added, ‘at the most fundamental and obvious level it would be perfectly wrong to read my films as being primarily in any way about Jewishness … for years and years I shut up about the whole thing, because you don’t want to be labelled and the whole thing has a different currency in the English dimension’.
Nevertheless, Leigh has gone on record to describe his approach to filmmaking as ‘Talmudic.’ He describes himself as ‘a rebbe surrounded by Talmudic students, talking things out.’ He seeks ‘in a Talmudic way, to raise questions and posit possibilities’. As critic Kenneth Turan described, ‘with his full beard and deep, expressive eyes’, Leigh resembles ‘a wonder-working Hasidic rabbi, able to examine the most intimate secrets of the soul’.
Leigh’s screenplays emerge from a process of pilpul with his cast. Working intensely with a group of individually selected actors, they developed the characters and narratives, typically via a form of improvisation. Only Leigh, at the centre, orchestrating the action, knows how these interconnected lives will result. This can take months of collaboration and rehearsal. Only then, does Leigh draft the final script.
Influenced by his youthful participation in Habonim, and compounded by visits to, including a brief sojourn in, Israel, Leigh embraced a ‘collectivist’ creative process in his practice as a director. ‘Having that leadership experience,’ Leigh told Amy Raphael, ‘was great and has absolutely informed not only how I am but also how I’ve worked. Everybody was open and democratic and working together towards a goal, a spirit of which goes right the way through my productions and the way I work’.
As the critic John Lahr nicely observes, ‘The question mark is what Leigh’s films are all about’. He then invites his audiences to sit round the table and to say, ‘“Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that. We don’t know.” Which is a Talmudic investigation that doesn’t arrive at any conclusions, basically.’
Using a form of Talmudic investigation, Donald Weber argues, persuasively in my opinion, that Leigh’s Secrets and Lies in 1996 is his ‘exemplary Jewish film, a more apt representation of what Leigh has described as the “Jewish spirit in my work”’. Weber continues to say that ‘Mike Leigh’s ‘Jewish’ soul remains more powerfully—indeed, most provocatively—revealed […] in his deeply moving film about lost souls searching for family ties, for a way of salving the pain of living in a topsy-turvy multicultural Britain, where everyday people, feeling apart and uprooted, seek alternative modes of filiation, of connecting with a tribe to call their own’.
For his part, Leigh explained, ‘I wanted to do a film that in some way was about the need we all have to deal with our roots, to assert our identities and to know who we are, and to share and be truthful’. ‘In this respect,’ concludes Weber, ‘Secrets and Lies might be considered Leigh’s more deeply Jewish work: Jewish, that is, in its ‘tragic-comic’ tones (the ‘Jewish’ influence that Leigh invariably acknowledges when asked about his relation to Jewishness), its sounding of the human heart, above all in its soul-searching powers of empathy’.
Secrets and Lies is a film about the need to search for ‘roots’ and ‘identity’ in contemporary society. Hortense (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is a black middle-class optometrist in search of her birth mother who it is revealed is the white working-class Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), sister of Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall). Both Maurice’s given name and chosen profession — a portrait photographer — can be read as Jewish. Indeed, Leigh modelled Maurice on his Russian immigrant grandfather Mayer Leibermann, who made a modest living as a portrait photographer in Leigh’s native Salford. ‘Thus at some level the figure of Maurice seems to channel Leigh’s still vivid Jewish family memories’, Weber says. Maurice even reveals himself to be Jewish, argues Weber, through his ‘comic tone of Jewish ironic understatement’ and use of Yiddish words when he says, ‘It’s a bit of a schlep, isn’t it?’. ‘At this moment,’ says Weber, ‘Maurice seems positioned as a hidden Jew in Secrets [and Lies…] Maurice appears to declare his ethnicity, to ‘out’ himself as a ‘Jew’ through his coded, ‘insider’ question to Hortense, even if the familiar Yiddish word ‘schlep’ has, for the most part, acquired a universal meaning’.
Thus, as Weber reveals, a Talmudic approach with a Talmudic filmmaker like Leigh uncovers deeper secrets (and lies) in his work and something to look out for when watching his films again on the big and small screen.