Born in Manchester in 1943 Leigh began his career as a theatre director and playwright in the 1970’s working with the Royal Shakespeare company, however he is probably most well-known for his work as writer and director on films such as Naked (1993) Secrets and Lies (1996) and the Oscar nominated Vera Drake (2004).
Throughout his career Leigh has been nominated for the awards for Best Writing and directing at the Academy Awards a total of seven times, however he has expressed his distain for Hollywood, saying:
“Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins”
Despite this Leigh’s writing and directorial style is known the world over, and he has received a great deal of recognition on the European film festival and award circuit, including a BAFTA award and Cannes’ Palme D’or for the aforementioned Secrets and Lies, whilst Cannes also recognised his directing achievement for Naked.
The aspect of Leigh’s work that is most often commented on is his realistic and rather gritty character portrayals, along with his penchant for improvisation and kitchen-sink drama. Leigh himself as referred to his style as based more upon intuition than intelligence, explaining that the work conducted in the lead up to filming is a largely collaborative effort that is based upon the individual feelings and requirements of the actors, cinematographers, sound technicians and the director himself.
“All art, in every medium, is a synthesis of improvisation and order.”
Many have criticised Leigh’s work for being bleak or morose, yet Leigh himself has noted that a key feature he looks for in his actors is a sense of humour and despite the qualms of some, there is often something hopeful and revelatory about Leigh’s work; he creates recognisable and believable characters and ties them into seemingly mundane and run of the mill situations; yet the way in which these characters, their (and by extension that of the audience) presumptions about class, gender, race and mental illness, are dissected and explored has lead to some of the most explosive and emotional moments in recent British cinema.
Leigh’s work has also been notably important for beginning or enhancing the careers of many now well known British actors including; Brenda Blethyn, with whom he worked on Secrets & Lies, Alison Steadman (whom he married) in Abigail’s Party and Gary Oldman in the TV film Meantimes.
What is most impressive about Leigh’s work is the understated tone in which he addresses the majority of his narratives, these are not excessively violent, dramatic or hypertensive pictures, but rather muted character lead stories in which the lives of a small knot of people are irreparably altered.
Often Leigh uses his films as a vehicle with which to comment on contemporary social problems or to explore controversial cultural anxieties. Themes such as abortion, marriage, and race have all been explored in Leigh’s films, largely to positive audience and critical acclaim. Leigh continues to work both in British film and theatre and is heralded as providing a liberal, intelligent and diligently observant platform upon which to explore multiple layers of British society.