A slow-burning depiction of economic degradation in Thatcher’s England, Mike Leigh’s Meantime was the culmination of the writer-director’s pioneering work in television and became his breakthrough theatrical release. Unemployment is rampant in London’s working-class East End, where a middle-aged couple and their two sons languish in a claustrophobic public housing flat. As the brothers (Phil Daniels and Tim Roth) grow increasingly disaffected, Leigh punctuates the grinding boredom of their daily existence with tense encounters, including with a priggish aunt (Marion Bailey) who has managed to become middle-class and a blithering skinhead on the verge of psychosis (a scene-stealing Gary Oldman, in his first major role). Informed by Leigh’s now trademark improvisational process and propelled by the lurching rhythms of its Beckett-like dialogue, Meantime is an unrelenting, often blisteringly funny look at life on the dole.
Mike Leigh’s Meantime receives a much needed upgrade after a rather shoddy DVD edition release by Fox Lorber a looong time ago. Though it was aired on television (and I believe made for the medium) the film had also screened at festivals so that probably explains why it is delivered here in the widescreen ratio of 1.66:1. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode, and it comes from a new 2K restoration scanned from the original 16mm negative.
Anybody who has seen (or heard) the old DVD knows that calling it a bloody mess is being polite. The full frame image was fuzzy, noisy, and washed out, making it impossible to view. I tried watching the film on that DVD but I couldn’t get through it and if I made it 15-minutes in I’d be shocked: it was dreadful. This Blu-ray will actually mark my first real viewing of the film, and as I can attest it was a far more pleasant experience. Though the film is still rather dull looking in its colour schemes (lots of browns and the like) and leans a bit on the yellow side of things it still manages to be far more vibrant in comparison to my memories of the older DVD. Saturation levels look better, as do black levels despite some mild crushing in a few darker scenes. The image is also far sharper, retaining a more film-like texture, rendering the grain levels incredibly well. Details are sharper and it’s nice to see all the fine nuances in the various interiors, as well as the stubble on Gary Oldman’s shaved head (as are the scars from an unfortunate incident mentioned throughout the interviews found in the disc’s supplements). The restoration work has also beautifully cleaned this up: I don’t recall any significant blemishes ever popping up.
I admittedly had a sour taste left in my mouth from the film after trying to watch it initially but I realize now it really was based on that experience with Fox Lorber’s horrible DVD. This new Blu-ray is really a revelation and it was an entirely new experience. It looks absolutely great here.
Though the image on the old DVD didn’t help in any way, leading to a painful viewing, it was actually the audio on that disc that made the experience absolutely horrendous: it was incredibly tinny and distorted and it was brutal trying to understand any of the dialogue (even Tim Roth mentions how awful the audio was in the included interview found on this disc). The audio here, presented in lossless 1.0 PCM mono, is such a drastic improvement and you can actually hear the dialogue! Yes, some accents may make it difficult for North American ears, but I think even then most should be able to make out a majority of the dialogue, unlike the old DVD where it was impossible to hear anything (it was this aspect that played more into my decision to just not bother).
Though most definitely an improvement this track is still not the most dynamic presentation one will ever hear, and fidelity is fairly limited. Still, the score sounds nice, you can actually hear the dialogue, distortion isn’t a problem, and the track has also been cleaned up rather vigorously.
Criterion gets a couple of new interviews, the first between Mike Leigh and Jarvis Cocker. The two talk about the film’s growing legacy, Leigh especially surprised by its longevity. It was made for television, basically aired and then disappeared before it apparently started showing up on bootlegs, recorded from the broadcast, and from there grew more of an audience (Leigh is now delighted and surprised that it’s getting a Criterion release). They then sort of delve into what the appeal of it would be, primarily it’s representation of the time period and the effects of “Thatcherism,” the film becoming a document. Leigh and Cocker then talk a bit about the film’s style, how Leigh constructed it, and the film’s rather offbeat score. It’s a very brisk, insightful 32-minutes between the two.
Leigh and Cocker talk a bit about the “script” development (the story, sequences, and characters were constructed and worked out with the actors) but actor Marion Bailey and writer Amy Raphael focus a bit more on this. Bailey explains how Leigh and she developed her character, her background story, and even her accent (which is explained a bit in the film) as well as the population segment she would represent. She also talks about her cast and the relationships between the characters and adds some neat little trivia bits (her character is actually a half sister to Pam Ferris’ character) but the real meat is in the working process that went into the development of the story. It’s another fascinating 28-minutes.
Criterion then includes a 32-minute interview with Tim Roth, recorded in 2007 for what I assume was the ITV DVD released in the UK (I haven’t seen that edition but most comments seem to suggest it was better than the Fox Lorber disc, which wouldn’t be a very difficult accomplishment). Roth talks about getting into acting and how he met Leigh, and then gets into more detail about how Leigh worked with his actors on the film, with Roth insisting that what they did wasn’t “improv” (which he doesn’t have a very high opinion of) since everyone really worked out their characters and the story, there just wasn’t a traditional script. Roth is really quite passionate here, obviously fond of Leigh and seems to value his experience on this film over everything else he has ever done. He also talks about his character, working with Oldman (and like every other interview on here he talks about an accident that occurred, hurting Oldman), and the work he’s done since then and the art of acting as a whole. I found it a wholly engaging discussion and it’s wonderful Criterion secured it for this release. It’s really quite good.
The release then features an insert with an essay written by Sean O’Sullivan on the film and its structure, while also contextualizing it. It offers the only real academic slant to this edition disappointingly, but the interviews manage to illuminate a lot on this period of Leigh’s career and the work that went into its development and production. It may not look like a lot here but the material is really dense.
I couldn’t get past the first quarter hour of the film with the previous DVD release but Criterion’s new Blu-ray offers a crisp new presentation and vastly improved audio, making for a whole new, less frustrating experience. The supplements, though few, are still great additions but it’s the presentation that makes this worth picking up. Very highly recommended.