Bleak Moments (Great Britain, 1971):

Mike Leigh's feature debut, though the framing is already scrubbed into the mute desperation of his brooders -- figures shambling down overcast London streets with leafless trees, or pinned against greenish domestic interiors. The same daily, middle-class drabness has driven more than a couple of Fassbinder protagonists to suicide, but Leigh's depressives are too emotionally numb to even consider taking the easy way out. Rather, accountant clerk Anne Raitt just muddles through, watching over her retarded sister (Sarah Stephenson) when not warding off nosy office colleague Joolia Cappleman -- the prospect of two new men (schoolteacher Eric Allan and hippie lodger Mike Bradwell, both cripplingly shy) lends her some hope, but the title gives the game away. As befits the film's aggressive kitchen-sink dreariness, life for the characters is a string of more or less suffocating interludes: visiting Mum, sitting for tea or ordering a meal at a restaurant are hardly less than miserable ordeals. Amid the gloominess, moments of joy turn even more ephemeral -- Bradwell strums some tunes from his guitar, and the sisters huddle around him as if holding on to a life raft. The centerpiece is an extended after-dinner sherry 'n' coffee session between Raitt and Allan, a grueling tour de force fumbling toward the possibility of connection only to see it scurry away, hopes raised to be squashed. A link can be traced between the alienation of Leigh's forlorn, severe Raitt and the zombified young heroine in fellow Brit New Waver Ken Loach's Family Life that same year, though that film's politicized anger is quite alien to Leigh's dour humanism. (His fury doesn't fully surface until Naked.) Both directors are aware of the entrapment of the people in their works, but where Loach attacks society for the characters' conditions, Leigh punishes the characters for accepting their conditions without a fight. With Liz Smith.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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