Sylvia, a typist with a deep frozen firm of chartered accountants, lives a sherry-soaked life of quiet desperation in a South London semi. Her only human contact comes from her mentally handicapped sister Hilda, her frumpish malteser-addicted workmate Pat, her terminally meek teacher boyfriend Peter and a stuttering hippie Norman who plays the guitar hesitantly in the garage.
With a cast who seem perpetually on the point of tears, and an improvised scenario that seems to consist mainly of embarrassed pauses, Bleak Moments is at once warmly, gently funny and the most depressing 111 minutes you’ll ever spend in front of a motion picture.
Made in 1971, when it was too much for anyone to take, it displays much of the brilliance that was confirmed by Mike Leigh’s TV work in the 1970s and early ‘80s, but put him off making theatrical films for at least a decade. Leigh displays an uncanny rapport with his unfamiliar but outstanding cast, an ability to turn a disastrous Chinese meal or an awkward ‘come back to my place for coffee’ situation into the subtlest kind of comedy, a precise feel for the nuances of life in contemporary Britain (Streatham, actually) and a complete lack of cruelty towards his pathetic characters.
As often in Leigh’s work, ordinary, repressed, miserable folk are allowed to show glimpses of deep chasms of despair or longing – this can make lines that could come from a Robin Askwith movie (‘I’d like you to take off your trousers’) come over like Chekhov. While the film’s quality is undeniable, its relentless vision of trivial miseries requires a great deal of patience and understanding on the part of an audience. Too good to pass over on its rare revivals, but see it with someone who will cheer you up afterwards.