The first mention of Joe, the son of the film’s central characters, Tom and Gerri (yes, I know, Tom and Jerry), asks the fateful question, “Has he got a girlfriend yet?” The answer is no, which is, of course, usually film and novel shorthand for “he’s gay”. Oh no, you think, another clunky film about coming out and generational misunderstanding. But no, Leigh doesn’t wallow in such shallows. In the end, Joe does acquire a girlfriend, although there remains an intriguing ambiguity about the relationship which suggests the original question and observation may not, in fact, be far from the truth. But there it remains: Leigh doesn’t labour the point, nor does he bore us with pointless speculation. In reality, unless someone comes out (or is outed) we cannot categorically know their sexuality: and this is the case with Joe.
Mary, the other principal character in the film, is enduring a car-crash of a life, an incipient alcoholic desperately seeking love and attachment, battling a growing depression. In a doomed attempt to find freedom, she buys herself a car. The first time we see it is when she drives to Tom and Gerri’s for an afternoon party, where she proceeds to drain some very large glasses of white wine. Then she offers to drive everyone home. Oh no, you think, let’s guess what will happen next. Her car-crash of a life is going to be extinguished in a hideously literal piece of symbolism. But no, there is no crash, not even a drink-driving charge, just a fraught journey home and Mary is ready to fight (and fail) another day.
Then we have Ken. Ken is another alcoholic loser. He is dangerously obese. He drinks to excess. He eats nothing but junk food. He chain smokes. Guess what’s going to happen to Ken, viewers? And so, when Tom and Gerri fetch up in funeral black outside an unnamed house, we immediately assume the cliched worst. Wrong again. The obvious plot device, a fatal heart attack, is avoided, and with it the film achieves a far greater sense of realism.
The opening and ending of the film are also worthy of consideration. Most creative writing tutors would view the opening and declare it flawed. The first two scenes, lengthy conversations, feature Janet, played by Imelda Staunton, who subsequently drops out of the film entirely. Why open with a character who is essentially redundant? Why deceive the viewer into thinking this film is going to be about a woman who plays no further part in it? This, you could argue, is a basic flaw in writing craft. In fact, I made just this observation on a learner’s short story very recently.
And the ending? It is one of those “it just stops” sort of endings which so infuriate many people. Nothing is resolved. The characters remain in limbo, with Mary edging ever closer to full-blown alcoholism and depression, and Tom and Gerri winding down towards retirement. What’s the point of it, you might ask.
But there is a point, and to make that point the opening and the ending are inextricably linked. In the opening, the last comment that Gerri, a counsellor, makes to Janet is that she would like her to return next week for another session, but it is up to her. Will she turn up? We never find out, of course, but we suspect that she probably will not.
Move to the ending, and Gerri is speaking to her friend, Mary. You need to get help, Mary, she tells her. You need to see someone. This is, of course, the same point, the same message that she gave to Janet. Again, the prospect of recovery remains the responsibility of the ill person. Janet, we feel, would not take the opportunity. Will Mary? We hope she will. We do not know, but we hope. And isn’t that true to life, for anyone who has watched someone they know and love take the precipitous descent into alcoholism? Help yourself, we say. Help yourself and I’ll help you, too. Please.
It makes for a wise and beautiful ending. We don’t know what Mary will do. All we can do is hope.