Mike Leigh, accidental poet of London life

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A critic once said you couldn't step onto a London bus without thinking of a Mike Leigh film, yet the British filmmaker told AFP he never set out to capture the city on celluloid.

"I'm called the cinematic poet of London," smiled the 68-year-old director in an interview Friday, in Paris as guest of honour of a festival celebrating London in film, starting with a Mike Leigh masterclass and retrospective.

From "Naked", the anarchic vision of a tormented young man colliding with the city, which won best director prize in Cannes in 1993, to the Palme d'Or winner "Secrets and Lies" or the abortion drama "Vera Drake", almost all of Leigh's feature films have been set in London.

"People are my raw material," said the director. "The core issues of my films are ones that apply to people not in cities, not in London, not in Britain."

But he adds, "London provides the backdrop, it is the given environment. I cherish London, and I take great joy in recreating its nuances and detail."

Himself a northerner who came south, Leigh left the Manchester of his youth for London aged 17, and has lived there happily all his adult life, raising his two sons in the British capital.

"London for all the obvious, ordinary cultural reasons was the mecca. The provincial, suburban, bourgeois, dreary, bland, bleak world that I grew up in was one that you simply wanted to escape in the 1950s.

"Before then I never saw a film that wasn't in English. I went to London in the autumn of 1960 and saw 'Les 400 Coups', 'A Bout de Souffle'," the French New Wave classics by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, he said.

As a filmmaker Leigh has used London as a versatile canvas.

Timely all over again as Britain faces soaring unemployment, his 1983 film "Meantime" about a working-class family trying to stay afloat in a recession, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, has "a very strong sense of London" as a city of haves and have-nots.

Leigh at one point films the main character far from his downtrodden East End neighbourhood, crossing Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in the distance -- "to remind the audience that these guys live near the beating hub of the capital, and yet they live this impoverished and wanting existence."

By contrast the London of "Naked", whose main character Johnny comes down from Manchester to the city, a gifted loner twisted by frustration at his lack of a place in society, is a far cry from Buckingham Palace and Big Ben.

While some sequences are captured documentary-style in the Soho red-light district, others were shot in the derelict far East End, in an "almost operatic, strange decaying landscape," Leigh said.

"There's nothing literal about the Londonness of that film -- it's a kind of urban netherworld. It could be any big city, it's a metaphorical kind of London."

Leigh points out -- deadpan -- that one reason he set so many works in London was simply economic: "We can't afford do a film in the north, because London is where everybody is."

"The milieu is London," he said. "But I set out to explore all kinds of aspects of what life is about, what relationships are about, and the good and bad things about existing, and all the rest of it."

Take "Vera Drake" in which Imelda Staunton plays a backstreet abortionist, and "you could absolutely tell the same story set anywhere in the world," he said. "It's about a universal predicament."

Likewise "Secrets and Lies," which tells of the fraught reunion between a young black woman and her white biological mother, and whose theme struck a chord around the world.

Chosen to chair the jury of the 62nd Berlin film festival in February -- "a formidable task, and a great honour, and terrifying" -- Leigh is guest of honour of the "London's Calling" festival in Paris.

Starting with a Mike Leigh weekend and masterclass on Sunday, the three-month long cycle at the capital's Forum des Images celebrates London in film from the smoggy decor of murder movies to the swinging 1960s and the riotous punk years.

Film noir is spotlighted with a dozen works from Alfred Hitchcock's serial killer classic "Frenzy", to Tim Burton's surrealist tale of a murderous Fleet Street barber, "Sweeney Todd".

Stephen Frears's "Dirty Pretty Things" exposes the gritty underworld inhabited by illegal immigrants, headlining a mini-series on London as global city, ahead of cycles on everyday London, and finally "apocalyptic" London.

© 2011 AFP

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