So how Jewish are Mike Leigh's films?


Mike Leigh never wanted to be labelled a Jewish film maker. He confessed to me several years ago that Woody Allen's Radio Days was one of his favourite films because it echoed on a very personal, family level, with all the shouting and relatives and his own retreat into a world of radio plays and music.

Leigh's career is similar to that of the obviously Jewish Allen in that he is regularly nominated for awards as a screenwriter, that he is prolific and that he has a unique way of working that he lets nobody interfere with. It would be reductive to call him the British Woody Allen but, following his remarkable confessional with Alan Yentob in which he spoke of the early Jewish influences on his films, let's look at the work itself. Just how Jewish are Mike Leigh's films?

Abigail's Party - 1977

Although it aired as a BBC Play for Today, this has become one of Leigh's key works of both stage and screen. The suburban setting, the fashionable cocktails and music (Demis Roussos, Jose Feliciano) are all instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up in the aspirational environs of middle-class Jewry, particularly the London enclaves such as Edgware and Ilford. Indeed, although it's never mentioned, the characters of Beverly Moss and her estate agent husband Laurence, could easily be Jewish. We'll claim them, anyway.

J Factor: ✡✡✡✡✡

High Hopes - 1988

Leigh's cinema career re-ignited with this King's Cross-set satire. Lead character Cyril is a motorbike courier and although there is much made of property and aspiration and how we look after our relatives, there isn't much obviously Jewish.

J Factor: ✡✡

Life is Sweet - 1990

Set mainly among a bickering north London family often in their sitting room, this could now look like an early episode of Gogglebox (the TV show which has a Jewish family on one of its many sofas). It's the warmth of Alison Steadman's doughty matriarch Wendy that gives it a Jewish heart, although not a Jewish stomach: Tim Spall's unforgettable restaurateur Aubrey might be a classic Jewish nebbish - were it not for the very unkosher kitchen at The Regret Rien: saveloy on lychees, liver in lager, prawns in jam, tripe soufflé, pork cyst.

J Factor: ✡✡✡✡

Naked - 1993

Leigh's darkest and least obviously Jewish film features an epochal performance from David Thewlis as Johnny, wandering among the destitute on London's streets. One could regard Johnny and his eloquent, ferocious ramblings, however, as products of a failed system or family. To consider Johnny a "fallen" Jewish boy would add a considerable layer of horror to the film for many viewers.

J Factor: ✡

Secrets & Lies - 1996

This Palme d'Or winner is such a classic of family disquiet it needs little Jewish revisionism. However, if we imagine Marianne Jeanne Baptiste's character Hortense not as black but as Jewish, you wouldn't need to change much at all.

J Factor: ✡✡✡✡✡

Career Girls - 1997

Unfairly overlooked, this is a great little film about aspiration, flat hunts and interior decor set in west Hampstead. The characters of Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman) are universally recognisable. Again, it's the wide-boy north London estate agent Adrian (Joe Tucker) who would be most possibly Jewish. J-Factor: ✡✡✡

Topsy Turvy - 1999

You can't get much more English than the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. But see this is as Leigh's take on the big, backstage musical, transposing a classic Jewish Broadway staple into the English idiom, and it's the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern et al

J-Factor: ✡✡✡✡✡

All or Nothing - 2002

One of his saddest, bleakest films, but beautiful. No Jewish characters here on a south London council estate where warmth and communication are in very short supply.

J-Factor: ✡

Vera Drake - 2004

With its East End/Islington period setting and conversation about wartime bombs, this has considerable Anglo-Jewish relevance, particularly in the character of the brother Frank, who moves out to Essex. Secret abortionist Vera herself mightn't be Jewish, but one can easily imagine she had several local clients who were.

J-Factor: ✡✡✡✡

Happy-Go-Lucky - 2008

A very north London film, Sally Hawkins's Poppy isn't Jewish but her best friend Zoe clearly is (played by Alexis Zegerman, who earlier worked for Leigh on stage in Two Thousand Years). Eddie Marsan's unstable driving instructor Scott could easily be Jewish, although Marsan himself isn't, despite often being cast in Jewish roles.

J-Factor: ✡✡✡✡

Another Year - 2010

A beautiful study in family life, the year in question progresses with no mention of Rosh Hashanah, Chanucah or Pesach. If the characters aren't Jewish, the Wanstead setting feels instantly knowable and you just know that Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) have Jewish neighbours.

J-Factor: ✡✡✡

Mr Turner - 2014

Surely nothing Jewish here in Leigh's current and biggest hit? Don't be so sure: a portrait of the committed artist as outsider, observer, rebel and showman. Ok, so Turner isn't Chagall, but he is most representative of a very Jewish artist indeed: Mike Leigh.

J-Factor: ✡✡✡

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