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Lowlifes Meet Highbrows in 'High Hopes'

January 31, 1991|JON MATSUMOTO

One of the best films ever made about class division is "High Hopes," a powerful and often funny street-level look at England under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

There are no complex plot twists or high-paced action sequences in this film. It's a classic character movie in which emotions and ideas stand center stage--the type of small, intelligent film that simply can't get made within the Hollywood studio system.

What makes "High Hopes" such a splendid work is its handful of unforgettable characters. There's the aging, embittered Mrs. Bender. Living in a newly gentrified neighborhood, this working-class widow is like a run-down Ford parked in a sea of sparkling BMWs. She hardly utters a word throughout the movie, yet her wilted spirit comes across loud and clear.

Mrs. Bender's encounter with her neighbors--an intensely foul yuppie couple named Rupert and Laetitia Boothe-Brane--is one of the film's many memorable scenes. Seeking refuge with the Boothe-Branes after misplacing her house key, she finds herself derided like a peasant who has dared impose upon the Royal Family. Director Mike Leigh handles this sequence with a subtle mix of comedy and drama. There's no missing Leigh's point that age and class discrimination are real and inexcusable social problems.

The soul of "High Hopes" lies with Mrs. Bender's radical son Cyril and his live-in girlfriend Shirley. In a society rampant with callousness and greed, they represent compassion and at least a small amount of hope for England's future.

Still, Leigh isn't simply making good-guy, bad-guy distinctions. There are no heroes in this film. Cyril may be a thoughtful and intelligent sort, but he's also portrayed as a rather self-defeated individual who lacks the assertiveness to make his life better.

"High Hopes" (1988), directed by Mike Leigh. 112 minutes. No Rating.

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