Background: Mike Leigh’s Meantime (Spine #890) is a crucial piece of 1980s British cinema examining economic stagnation in Thatcherite England. It is the fourth of Leigh’s films to be inducted into the Collection, after Naked (Spine #307), Topsy-Turvy (Spine #558), and Life is Sweet (Spine #659).
Story: A working class family wastes away in perpetual unemployment in a shoddy apartment tower in London’s East End during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Only the mother Mavis (Pam Ferris) has employment. Her angry, good-for-nothing husband Frank (Jeff Robert) and two sons, the bitter, troublemaking Mark (Phil Daniels) and painfully introverted Colin (Tim Roth) stagger from day to day on the dole. Social anxiety and Mark’s near-constant emotional abuse fling Colin into the path of Coxy (Gary Oldman), a local skinhead.
The Film: The usual descriptions one finds about Meantime insist that trying to follow any kind of specific narrative misses the point. Meantime is a film of fragmented vignettes, less a coherent story than a collage of incidents and everyday boredoms comprising a portrait of working class desperation. Father and sons get beaten down by the bureaucratic indignities of the unemployment office; Mark gets drunk with his skinhead mate Coxy; Mavis struggles to keep the household together as sole breadwinner; the nervous Colin withdraws further and further into himself and sinks deeper and deeper into the family’s oversized recliner that he becomes like a mere fleshy growth on the fabric (an image wisely used as the cover art for the film’s Criterion release).
And yet there is a narrative trapped inside the film, a narrative which in today’s political atmosphere of Right Wing populist re-ascendance seems more relevant than at any time since its release: the transformation of the listless Colin into a racist skinhead. The film works slowly and methodically, but therein lies its genius. At first he timidly clings to his brother Mark, a layabout louse who angrily lashes out at their parents and any adults who come into his periphery. But when their middle class aunt Barbara (Marion Bailey) offers to hire him as a redecorator—at a fraction of the minimum wage, mind you, but a job’s a job—Mark sabotages Colin’s first day at work. But out of what? Jealously? Contempt? Boredom? It’s difficult to tell. But Colin runs off and returns home with his head shaved like Coxy, the only person in the entire film other than Mark who shows him genuine affection, even if it’s just patting him on the head and calling him “mate” a few times while at the pub. And we know that his haircut is more than just a fashion statement—in an easy-to-miss scene, Colin shares an elevator with a black woman shortly before his haircut. And in his eyes we see the same silent contempt as Coxy when in an earlier scene he was also stuck in an elevator with a black man.
Today we mostly notice Colin’s story, but when the film was originally released in 1984, it hit the disenfranchised working class like a thunderbolt. Like all of Leigh’s films between 1973 and 1985, Meantime was made for television. As film scholar Sean O’Sullivan points out in his insert essay for the Criterion release, it was the third original film produced for Channel 4, a newcomer to British television that managed to rival the BBC in large part by revitalizing the country’s national cinema through the financing of films by such legendary auteurs as Ken Loach and Peter Greenaway. Its relegation to a televised format gave it the kind of initial public exposure afforded to few studio films, yet it also doomed it to decades of obscurity—for years it was only available through homemade bootlegs. But the film so resonated with working class audiences who had rarely seen their plight portrayed in such a stark, honest light that it gained a kind of underground following. And seeing the film today, its impact is still startling.
The Supplements: Barring O’Sullivan’s informative yet painfully dry insert essay, the supplements on the Blu-ray release are a rich glimpse into the historical/cultural circumstances surrounding the film’s production and the cast and crew’s creative process. Of particular note is a lengthy conversation between Leigh and musician Jarvis Cocker, although the centerpiece of the release is the stunning 2k digital transfer. If one didn’t know it was shot in 16mm for television, it could easily be mistaken for a beautiful 35mm production rivaling anything coming out of Britain’s film studios at the time.
Overall: Meantime is far from being one of Leigh’s most essential films, but it remains a crucial glimpse into the societal ennui felt by Britain’s working class during the 1980s. It’s also an important historical record of the nascence of Channel 4’s original programming that helped revitalize British cinema. Combine this with Criterion’s beautiful restoration and transfer and you have a welcome addition to any cinephile’s collection.
Film Grade: B+
Criterion Grade: B+
Featured Image: Wellspring Media