One of contemporary Britain's most renowned directors, Mike Leigh is known for his depictions of the dramas inherent in the everyday lives of regular people. Often compared to compatriot Ken Loach for his emphasis on "slice-of-life" realism (a comparison Leigh has deemed inaccurate, as his films, unlike Loach's, have no absolute political agenda), Leigh makes films remarkable for their level-headed, unsensational portrayals of topics that would become four-hankie "message" melodramas in the hands of most Hollywood directors.
Born February 20, 1943, in Salford, Manchester, Leigh originally wanted to go into acting. While training at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, however, he found himself drawn toward directing and writing, and he eventually transferred to the London Film School. He began his career on the stage, with two of his most important works, The Box Play and Bleak Moments, brought to life through collaborative experimentation during rehearsals. The latter play, a drama about a woman looking for satisfaction in life, later comprised Leigh's 1972 feature-film directorial debut. The film earned wide acclaim, but was virtually ignored by the public. Returning to the stage, Leigh occasionally ventured into the television arena with a number of made-for-TV films. Two of these, Meantime (1981) and Four Days in July (1984), gained limited theatrical release, while Nuts in May (1976) and Who's Who (1978) were given video distribution.
Leigh had his first real success as a film director with High Hopes in 1989. The recipient of the Venice Film Festival's FIPRESCI Prize, it was a bitingly satirical portrait of life in post-Thatcher England. Although the film received wide acclaim, it failed to find equally far-reaching theatrical release, a fate that also befell Leigh's subsequent effort, Life Is Sweet (1991). A blithely funny comedy that explored the dramas inherent in the apparent superficiality of everyday life, it featured excellent performances by its leads, including an award-winning turn by Jane Horrocks as a bulimic, woefully insecure young woman.
Leigh's true international breakthrough came in 1993 with Naked. A disturbing, relentlessly bleak account of the misanthropic wanderings of a philosophy-spewing drifter (David Thewlis), the film earned both raves from critics and rants from various feminist groups, who found it to be deeply misogynistic (a charge that Leigh would angrily refute) due to the violence carried out against some of its female characters. Naked was rewarded lavishly at the Cannes Festival, where Thewlis won Best Actor for his terrifying performance and Leigh was honored with the festival's Best Director prize.
Even more acclaimed was Leigh's subsequent film, Secrets & Lies (1996). A family drama, it revolved around the relationship between a young woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and her biological mother (Brenda Blethyn) who gave her up for adoption at birth, and the complications that ensue when the mother's family learn of their reunion. For their excellent, largely improvised performances, Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively, and Blethyn received a Best Actress Golden Globe. Blethyn also won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, where the film won the Palme d'Or. Secrets & Lies also earned a slew of additional honors, including a Best Film BAFTA Award.
Leigh's follow-up, Career Girls (1997), was a decidedly more low-key affair. A look at the friendship between two thirtysomething women and their disparate personalities, it received a fairly strong critical reception but failed to resound with much of the public. Leigh was back in 1999 with Topsy-Turvy, a biographical comedy about famed 19th-century opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan. The film represented a drastic departure for Leigh, although it did feature collaborations with some of his regular actors, including Jim Broadbent (who won the Venice Film Festival's Volpi Cup for his portrayal of Gilbert), Timothy Spall, and Lesley Manville.
Though Leigh's next feature, the 2002 working-class drama All or Nothing, didn't make much of an impact after being selected for the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, his 2004 drama Vera Drake not only catapulted star Imelda Staunton into the international spotlight, but also won her a BAFTA Award for Best Leading Actress (Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran also walked away with an award at the ceremony, with Leigh earning a Davil Lean Award for Direction). Leigh returned four years later with the more lightweight Happy-Go-Lucky, which won British Independent Film Awards for Supporting Actors Eddie Marsan and Alexis Zegerman, and a Golden Globe for Lead Actress Sally Hawkins. And while Leigh didn't make his fans wait quite as long until his next film, the 2010 marriage dramedy Another Year, largely positive reviews didn't make a difference come award time, when the film was passed over at both the BAFTAs and the Oscars.