Bleak Moments (1971) – Film Review
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Anne Raitt, Sarah Stephenson, Eric Allan
By Sarah Morgan
Never has a film been more aptly named than Mike Leigh’s directorial debut.
It’s 50 years since it first hit cinemas, and the BFI is celebrating the half-century of his screen career with a retrospective at its home on London’s South Bank. Other events tying in with this include the release of Bleak Moments on Blu-ray for the first time.
A largely unfamiliar cast is headed by Anne Raitt as Sylvia, a secretary who is bored at work and her home life lacks stimulation too – she lives in a dull semi-detached property with her sister Hilda, who has learning difficulties.
“Trapped by circumstance”
The film charts a week or so in their lives and the handful of people they know, namely timid teacher Peter, with whom Sylvia has a tentative romantic relationship, hippie Norman, whose friends have rented her garage and set it up as a printing press for a magazine, and her colleague Pat.
None of them are happy. Pat struggles to deal with her overbearing mother but finds some sort of solace in spiritualism and caring for Hilda while Sylvia has a break. Peter is so socially awkward he can barely deal with either a date in a Chinese restaurant or Sylvia’s admittedly hapless efforts to seduce him.
Norman, meanwhile, has only just arrived in London from Scunthorpe, searching for who knows what. Sylvia herself clearly wants to break out from her mind-numbing existence, but feels trapped by circumstance.
We learn little about any of the group’s past lives, their hopes or dreams. Instead, we simply watch them grow increasingly desperate and miserable.
In one of the special features, Leigh himself admits that Bleak Moments is an acquired taste. Although well-acted, and addressing serious matters such as social isolation – something that’s been in the news a lot lately because of lockdown and its aftermath – it’s so unrelentingly downbeat that it becomes difficult to watch.
The pace is also painfully slow, and I found myself wanting to try and shake some life into the characters. One shining light is, however, the presence of the wonderful Liz Smith as Pat’s mother; this was her big acting break, and the start of a long, successful and memorable screen career.
Leigh has gone on to make many far more interesting and satisfying films. The best that can be said of Bleak Moments is that it’s good to see how he began – and that his work has gone from strength-to-strength ever since.
· Newly remastered in 4K by the BFI, overseen by Dick Pope and Lee Herrick, approved by Mike Leigh
· Audio commentary by writer and director Mike Leigh (2015)
· Bleak Moments: 50 Years On (2021, 9 mins): a short interview with Mike Leigh as he looks back on his debut feature
· In Conversation: Mike Leigh and Les Blair (1972, 28 mins): in this rare archive interview director Mike Leigh and producer and editor Les Blair discuss Bleak Moments
· Interview with Mike Leigh (2019, 36 mins): filmed after a screening of his 1976 film Nuts in May, Mike Leigh discusses his approach to filmmaking with film researcher and programmer Neil McGlone
· Image gallery
· Illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Ellen Cheshire, an archival review from Sight & Sound and cast and credits
Bleak Moments is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £19.99