Last weekend, everyone and his brother laughed and cried and kissed 10 bucks goodbye watching Admiral Squidpuss and that amazing monkey...I know, that's sour grapes, since Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was the little movie that could, and besides the monkey even has his own fanlist now. The next must-watch destination, then, is Knocked Up. And I'm creeped to go there for the simple reason that the subject matter frightens me too much. The sheer scare power of Knocked Up makes Hostel 2 look like National Lampoon's European Vacation. Another pregnancy muddled through by a couple who can't stand each other? and we're supposed to be laughing? It sounds too much like my parent's generation.
Back then you used to see couples so oddly matched, that the only way to explain how they ended up together was to compare the amount of time between the date of their wedding and the birth of their first born child. And Knocked Up is another movie, just like Waitress, that bypasses the possibility of an abortion with hardly any discussion. (People are still having 'em, you know, whether the politicians, the priests, or producers like it or not.) Which is why I'd prefer to return to a cinematic era when people actually slowed down and discussed the idea of whether or not it was a good idea to bring another hungry vulnerable kid into this global mess. Has any film mulled over those anxieties as well as Mike Leigh's 1988 comedy/tragedy High Hopes?
Mrs. Bender's other child and his live-in are the real protagonists, though: Cyril (Philip Davis), a red-bearded motorcycle messenger and his charmingly funky lover of ten years Shirley (Ruth Sheen, in one of those performances that only gets better to watch over the years). Both are in their mid-thirties, and Shirley is gently but persistently raising the matter of when they're going to have a baby.
"Would you rather have a boy or a girl?" she asks. "I'd rather have a rusty spike up me arse," Cyril says, and he's not kidding; he's a serious socialist, and his own gloom over the Thatcher government's ascendancy isn't something he can just get over.
As a reminder of that Tory victory, Leigh takes us to visit to the new folks in Mrs. Bender's neighborhood: the high-toned and snobby Boothe-Braines (seen above), Rupert (David Bamber) and Letitia (called "Titty" for short), who are happy to remind the Bender family that the class war is over and that their class won. Director/writer Leigh, a strongly left-leaning filmmaker, is amused by Cyril's fear and political misery, but he takes it dead seriously. During a solemn, or mostly solemn, visit to the tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery, Cyril shows his despair over having to fight for rights that had been struggled for years ago. The ever practical Shirley reminds him gently that even Marx had kids, too.
Here's how seriously Leigh takes his subject: after a few more years of Thatcher, Leigh even treated some of the material here as tragedy, in his masterpiece, Naked. I'm referring to the incident of a wandering person from the north of England arriving in London without money, lodgings or prospects. Jason Watkins plays the hopeless Northerner from the town of "Barfleigh" in High Hopes, who drops into Cyril and Shirley's life: not just to show their natural generosity, but also to prove what a good mother Shirley would be. In Naked, the unexpected guest is a mad, bad and dangerous to know David Thewlis, lately much in the public eye in the Harry Potter movies. For that matter, Leigh's later film Vera Drake reasserts one line of dialog in High Hopes: if she gets knocked up, Shirley will keep the baby, but she still believes in the right to abortion.
Over the course of the film, the painful stalemate between Cyril and Shirley is all the worse because their rapport is so fine. The couple dresses alike, in leather jackets and chunky wool turtleneck sweaters. Even their names almost rhyme. We see what a fighter Shirley is: she's small, and soft-voiced, but she stands up to her wretched in-laws, shutting down Berke when he tries to make a startlingly clumsy pass at her. She's really very shrewd under her politeness. Anyway, High Hopes suggests that there's good solid reasons to not have the "bloody show" go on ("bloody show" being one of the repeatable gags in Knocked Up).
Even if Cyril and Shirley do have a baby, they'll be less selfish than the double-income, no-kids Boothe-Braines, or their heinously coarse sister and brother in law. When I watch this movie, I feel like I've had a bone thrown to me, because the matter of whether to breed or not isn't treated with that jokey simpering cuteness we're so used to in contemporary movies. At the end, it may be that Cyril is yielding to Shirley. Or maybe not, and maybe they'll go their separate ways. But at least they can laugh a little about the idea, and have a little hope.