Great Expectations
Susannah Gruder on High Hopes

“A bit noisy, isn’t it?” Cyril asks his sister Valerie toward the end of High Hopes, Mike Leigh’s 1988 study of the vast disconnect between economic classes in Margaret Thatcher’s England. He’s referring to the garish decor covering nearly every inch of her home: gaudy gilded swans; a chess set made of glass; a giant, gold-plated fig tree. “I don’t hear anything,” she replies. “We’re detached.” She’s boasting about the house’s standalone structure, but she’s speaking volumes about her obliviousness to her rather soulless lifestyle, a material existence built on amassing useless objects and striving for inclusion in London’s burgeoning yuppie stratosphere.

This early work from Leigh, his third feature film after 1971’s Bleak Moments and 1983’s TV movie Meantime firmly articulated the director’s concerns with the ways that politics invade the lives of ordinary people. A true actor’s director, Leigh is focused on portraying the realities of day-to-day life and the intricacies of social relations among his characters, which are developed in elaborate improvisations with the cast prior to filming. For Leigh, to focus on a particular prop signals its emptiness rather than its importance; the effort he puts into ornate set pieces like Valerie’s vulgar apartment, or Timothy Spall’s pastiche of a French restaurant “The Regret Rien” in Life Is Sweet (1990)—its walls teeming with broken accordions, Edith Piaf portraits, and bird cages—are less about wowing the audience than revolting them with his characters’ blatant displays of nouveau-riche ambition. Leigh’s depiction of the uneasy coexistence of the classes at a time when upward mobility was as common as unemployment and poverty shows how the country’s middle-class facade was held together by nothing more than flimsy ideas of what success looked like rather than any kind of more substantial philosophy.

The film literalizes this juxtaposition by interweaving the lives of three couples from three very different social milieus. Staunch working-class Marxists Cyril (Phil Davies) and his partner, Shirley (Ruth Sheen); his sister Valerie (Heather Tobias), an inelegant wannabe-bourgeois housewife and her slimy husband, Martin (Philip Jackson), a used car salesman; and Laeticia (Lesley Manville) and Rupert Boothe-Braine (David Bamber), each their own grotesque caricature of London’s upper-crust culture, spreading their “jolly goods” and “hear hears” like weeds from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next.

Valerie’s taste is tacky even by ’80s standards of ostentation, and Cyril and Shirley have only agreed to set foot inside this shrine to consumerism to celebrate the 80th birthday of his taciturn mother (Edna Doré). The event, organized by Valerie, seems less about Mrs. Bender’s birthday, and more about showing off her tasteless furnishings and forcing Moët on her guests.

As they sit down to dinner, Cyril, who looks like a mix of Robert Redford and Karl Marx, is particularly tickled by a brass banana sitting atop a centerpiece of similarly lustrous fake fruit. A faux fruit display is almost a cruel joke to Cyril and Shirley, whose meager salaries as a courier and a gardener for the city barely manage to make ends meet. But while they could be bitter about their lot in life, their sense of humor wins out in the end, as it nearly always does for the upbeat couple. “Handy though isn’t it, a brass banana?” Cyril chuckles. “Never know when you’re gonna want one of those.” Though we don’t know it now, Cyril’s nicked the banana on the sly, eventually revealing it to Shirley at an opportune moment later in the film.

Cyril and Shirley have carved out a small but cozy corner of the world for themselves, built on a strong foundation of radical politics and enduring romantic love. Both in their early-to-mid thirties, they seem content to live out their lives in a council flat overlooking Kings Cross Station, where you can practically taste the soot that coats the air. Their jobs, mostly spent outside, are punishing and low-paying, but their home is a haven of hash smoke, Chuck Berry records, and leftist literature. They sleep on a mattress on the floor, wear matching oversized sweaters and are proud owners of an assortment of cacti they’ve cheekily named Thatcher (“Cause he’s a pain in the ass”), Bollock, Dick, Turd, Brains, Willy, and Knob. Their genuine attraction to one another is still strong after ten years, a sign that hardship has only deepened their bond rather than eaten away at it. They sneak kisses and laugh furtively at the absurdities that surround them, embodying the optimism of the film’s title.

Whether it’s their socialist leanings or their good natures, Cyril and Shirley demonstrate a deep respect for each other and for their fellow man, though people like Valerie and Martin test their patience. When a lost and hapless bloke named Wayne (Jason Watkins) asks Cyril for directions on the street, the couple ends up inviting him back to their cramped abode, offering him tea and biscuits while he gets his bearings. They ultimately let him stay the night, and Shirley tucks him in as if he was her own child. “I hope I don’t have a kid that’s a bit thick,” Shirley whispers to Cyril as they nuzzle up next to each other together in bed. Cyril’s expression suddenly becomes despondent. As we learn in an earlier conversation, this is the one area where the two differ. While Shirley is eager to have a child, Cyril is firmly against procreation. As he believes, “It’s an overpopulated world as it is.”

Still, if this couple’s relationship is a celebration of love over bourgeois excess, Valerie’s is the opposite: a flailing marriage overstuffed with objects meant to disguise its vapidity. While Cyril and Shirley are happy with less, Valerie and Martin seem to always be grasping for more, as if they’ve been cheated of what’s rightfully theirs. With a voice so shrill that it echoes in your ear long after the film is over, Valerie is a cheap replica of her idea of a posh society fixture, desperate to escape her working-class upbringing via expensive-looking clothing, jewelry, and decor.

This is especially clear during an awkward and forced interaction between Valerie’s mother, who lives in the last of the council housing on a quiet block in London, and her next-door neighbors Laeticia and Rupert. After locking herself out of her house, Mrs. Bender has no choice but to knock on her neighbors’ door. Laeticia displays no signs of recognition when she answers, chastising her neighbor for being so forgetful before letting her in to use her telephone. Utterly beside herself at being so thoroughly inconvenienced by the interruption, Laetitia continues to criticize her for not moving out of her own home into somewhere smaller and more manageable (presumably making way for more people like her to move in).

Valerie is in no rush to help her mother out, taking her time to do full hair and makeup before showing up at the neighbors’ door. She’s of course forgotten the keys, though whether she’s simply saying this as an excuse to poke her head into every room of the Boothe-Brains’ classed-up home is anyone’s guess. Cyril and Shirley arrive on their white steed (re: Honda bike) to rescue Mrs. Bender, though not before being lectured by Rupert: “What made this country great was a place for everyone, and everyone in his place. And this is my place.” “Fascist,” Cyril mutters.

This sense of place, and how we make our mark on our particular corner of the world, is a central theme in Leigh’s early works. While his city-dwellers in films like Naked (1993) and Career Girls (1997) live in relative squalor, their shabby, dimly-lit flats overflowing with things—movie posters, Brontë novels, tea sets, burnt toast—when contrasted with the polished corporate work environments and sterile modernist living quarters of the upper classes, Leigh seems to prefer the former, nestling viewers into their dank nooks and dusty alcoves until it feels like we, too, are occupying these ramshackle spaces. In Career Girls, former college flatmates Annie (Linda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) reunite to reminisce about their days living in their seedy first apartment while touring potential flats for Hannah to buy. They visit a posh eighth floor dwelling inhabited by strung-out futures trader Andy Serkis, who hits on each woman mercilessly while showing off the useless objects he’s populated his home with, from a hammock to a telescope looking out on Big Ben and the London Bridge. “I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here,” Hannah jokes. Valerie’s brass banana, too, is an attempt to accumulate objects she hopes will add something, a bit of her own personality, to her tacky abode. Instead, its shiny surface only reflects her image back at her, an endless loop of bourgeois emptiness.

There’s a sense that each of the couples in High Hopes would be happy to simply stay in their own private bubbles, never having to bump up against the other. This isolationism works in the upper class’s favor, but for any real change to happen for the working class, some friction is necessary. As Cyril stands beside twins in matching power suits in an office elevator where he’s delivering documents, sticking out like a sore thumb in his beat-up leather jacket, motorcycle helmet, and scruffy blond beard, it looks more like he’s begrudgingly serving the corporate class than starting the revolution. Cyril is aware of his own inertia, but it’s emphasized on a visit to Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery. Shirley reads the inscription on his tombstone: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” Cyril stares up at the imposing bust. “The thing is, change what? It’s a different world now, innit?”

For some, the question of change intersects with the question of children. Cyril is resistant to the idea of fatherhood in large part because he feels that “no one gives a shit what sort of world the kids are being born into,” as he says during a discussion about abortion with the couple’s frazzled friend Suzi. In one keenly observed interlude, Leigh shows each couple going about their highly specific sexual routines: After the opera, Laeticia and Rupert discuss her “beautiful skin” as she lays on their bed with cucumbers over her eyes; Valerie, braced up against the gold-plated headboard in a swooning position, goes back and forth, saying “You start” to her half-asleep husband. Meanwhile, Shirley pulls Cyril’s boots off after a night at the pub, reciting “This Little Piggy” to his toes. “You gonna put your cap in?” he asks with a smirk. “Do I have to?” Shirley responds, hopeful that they might start trying to get pregnant. What follows is a drunken buzzkill of a conversation about selfishness and fucked-up families that doesn’t advance either of their causes one way or the other.

With the brilliant Davis and Sheen, Leigh crafts a delicate, accurate portrait of what it looks like to be in love, and to have the same fight over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle until it feels like you’re lost in a maze of questions and answers that don’t add up. But toward the end of the film, something does change. Perhaps it was the explosive finale to his mother’s birthday dinner, which ends with harsh words hurled between brother and sister, and Martin drunkenly devolving into blatantly hitting on Shirley. As the two call a cab for his mum, they stand facing one another in medium close-up. “You look nice,” he tells her. “So do you,” she says. Their leather jackets squeak loudly as they lean in for a kiss.

Staying hopeful in the face of political futility and a grim-looking future is a challenge that only seems to get more daunting. But for some, the act of procreation is a show of hope. “I’m scared of getting bitter,” Cyril tells Shirley back home, back in bed, wrapped in each other’s arms beneath a sleeping bag. As they kiss, she tells him she doesn’t have her cap in. He sticks his hand under the blanket, pulling out the brass banana. “It followed me home,” he explains as they laugh together. This comically phallic symbol is a rejection of his sister’s lifestyle, a sign that his hopefulness will outweigh his bitterness, and proof that his beliefs and way of life are worth continuing into the next generation. Maybe it’s all a “bourgeois game,” as Cyril says. “Get yourself a nice house, couple of kids, dog, garden with a greenhouse.” “I wouldn’t say no to the greenhouse,” Shirley says. Though he may not want to admit it, maybe Cyril wouldn’t either.