Meantime (1984)

Directed by Mike Leigh


Meantime is a small story about a low income family in London.  The focus is on the two brothers, Mark (Phil Daniels) and the younger Colin (Tim Roth), the latter of whom may be mentally challenged, though no one knows for sure.  Both of them are old enough to work, but neither does.  The same goes for their father, Frank (Jeff Robert) whose existence seems fueled entirely on resentment at this point.  The boys’ mother, Mavis (Pam Ferris), does hold down a job, but like her husband, she is slowly coming undone.

The film is labeled a comedy, but it is incredibly bleak as far as comedies go.  This seems to make sense, in terms of Leigh’s filmography, as his first film was titled Bleak Moments (1971).  The brothers’ relationship seems at first to be mined for comedy, but soon the film pries into them, analyzing their faults and not letting them off the hook.  The parents, for example, are fed up, not just with their sons but with their financial struggles as well.  Mavis’ frustrations are hard to bear, like we’re watching someone’s imminent psychotic break, and Frank looks as though he has died years ago.

The brothers have an energy that their parents lost long ago, but that energy is entirely misplaced.  You get a sense of claustrophobia watching them wander aimlessly with no money and no plans.  Mark torments his younger brother and spends most of his time at the pub, getting into fights with a local skinhead, Coxy (Gary Oldman).  When Coxy and Colin almost inexplicably become friends, Mark flips out, and soon he begins to interrupt Colin’s life in ways that suggest he really does care about his brother but just doesn’t know how to show it.

A wealthy aunt, Barbara (Marion Bailey) offers Colin a job, but Mark jumps in and manipulates him into rejecting the offer.  Frank and Mavis discover Colin’s refusal of a job and express their frustrations, but then they realize the problem is Mark.  Colin is just too impressionable.

It’s in this climactic scene that Colin lashes out at his parents for the first time, showing a side of him we didn’t know he had.  He’s full of some kind of life, it’s just been trapped in there for a while.  After the parents leave, Mark and Colin share an intimate moment in which Mark realizes his younger brother has been coaxed into shaving his head, like the local skinhead Coxy.

There is surprising heart in this film.  Mark and Colin, at first fairly broad character types, are probed, and their humanity is brought out by the end.  They’re products of their environment, destined to end up like their father in all likelihood.  They’re too old to be children, but they live as if they might as well be.  A film like this could have easily made the brothers 5-10 years younger and made this film more of a coming of age story.

As it is, they’re probably too old for any significant growth.  It’s a bleak story mostly because it’s a bleak world, and these characters are already stuck in it.  They have no real job prospects, and like their father will continue to collect unemployment checks.  Even if they were to find work, like Mavis, the problems wouldn’t go away.

There is a contrast to this family, seen through Mavis’ sister Barbara and her husband John (Alfred Molina).  They are wealthy, childless and made to seem more cultured than Mavis’ family.  Barbara offers Colin a job, seemingly offering charity, but Mark starts to poke holes in her apparent plan, pointing out that John should be helping out but isn’t.

Later we see that Barbara and John are indeed having marital problems.  Though they seem a step above Mavis’ family, they have their own struggles.  There is nothing special or unique about them, as implied by their home looking exactly like every other home in the neighborhood, something Mark makes a joke about.

This is a bleak film, that’s all there really is to say.  Is Leigh satirizing this type of community and the world that creates it or does he empathize with them?  It’s hard to laugh at these characters.  In one scene, Barbara desperately searches for a working pen as she scrambles to keep up during a game of Bingo.  The world just isn’t smiling upon her.  When someone else calls out “Bingo,” Barbara looks on with as much disdain as we’ve seen her show all movie.

Maybe life really is just a game, but these characters aren’t winning, and a game becomes much more serious the more you lose.  Barbara and Frank, perhaps, treat it gravely, like their existence is itself an illness they have to put up with.  Mark and Colin treat it more like a simple game, but with time they too will be in their father’s shoes.

Maybe the end of the film is meant to offer us a reason to expect that Colin will grow.  But he probably won’t.  He just became a skinhead, though we know it wasn’t his decision.  Colin will continue to float this way and that, influenced by whomever is closest in proximity to him.  This influencer becomes Coxy, and the last we see of him, he plays absent-mindedly in some kind of metal… I don’t know, cup?  He bounces around aimlessly like a child.  He’s a skinhead, yes, but his decisions for being the way he is are flimsy and unfounded.  He’s just a kid playing a game, and so is Colin.  They don’t understand the reasons they commit certain actions, but those actions will keep them stuck in this repetitive cycle.

Up Next: A Few Good Men (1992), It Comes at Night (2017), Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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