Mike Leigh’s mood piece Meantime was a brilliantly effective way to transition from TV drama to feature film during the “dark ages” of Thatcher’s Britain. Satisfyingly, its potency remains just as relevant today.
Meantime is very much a mood piece; an angry young man film set against the backdrop of recession during the early Thatcher years. There’s anger amongst its characters, their aimless use of time echoed by companions across their downtrodden urban estate. And there’s anger in its director, quietly politicising his appropriately slow-burning look under the surface of unemployment and life lived with muted ambition.
Meantime has become one of its writer-director Mike Leigh’s favourite works. I’d suggest that’s because the film not only represents a moment in history for so many British working class people, but reminds Leigh of a specific moment in his life and career. He was almost entirely, up until that point, a director for television but Meantime allowed him to work with a feature-length timeframe under the auspices of Channel 4 which would screen the film on TV after its debut at the London Film Festival. It marked Leigh’s transition from television to film, and remains a piece of work for which he has fond memories.
It’s certainly an assured film, Leigh’s attention to the smallest details of character coming through terrific performances by the entire cast. The writer-director’s extensive work with the actors, a trademark of his preparation, can be seen in the unique qualities brought to each performance. You are therefore carried, as in true Mike Leigh style, by the individual journeys of each character rather than an overriding narrative arc. While there is a sense of progression in the plot, there is little closure, rather are sympathies are brought to rest by the suggestion of hope and direction in life, at least for some of the people we meet.
Of course, the fact two of its actors went on to huge Hollywood careers can’t be ignored. Gary Oldman as “skinhead” Coxy steals the show despite not having as much screen time as co-star Tim Roth. Oldman’s powder keg character lives on a crevice between rage and psychosis, both proving to be just as destructive and driven by an almost pointless existence. It could be a young Norman Stansfield, the crazed cop he would play a few years later in Leon. By contrast, Roth beautifully disappears into the scenery as the shy, socially inept Colin. He speaks few words which give his lines of dialogue, when they infrequently come around, even more potency.
It is Colin, along with his argumentative older brother Mark (Phil Daniels), who offer us that glimpse of hope we can cling to. While their relationship is riddled with the usual brotherly grievances and one-upmanship, we see a genuine companionship emerging; one built on familial loyalty and a mutual appreciation of their predicament. This is smartly contrasted with their comparatively affluent auntie and uncle, whose materialistic luxuries mask an unhappy marriage. That cannot be said for Colin and Mark’s parents – Mavis (Pam Ferris) and Frank (Jeffrey Robert) – whose marriage appears strong in spite of poverty.
Meantime is very much a product of the period in which it was made but it has aged rather well. It’s like a time capsule, offering us a glimpse into Thatcherite Britain at a particularly volatile period of modern British history. At times it exhibits made-for-TV production values that cheapen its effect but the performances are so engaging it really doesn’t matter. As a film about the directionless impact of unemployment under Thatcher in the 1980s, Meantime is an exceptionally good piece of work.