Usually serious, Jewish director Mike Leigh puts his funny side up

Director Mike Leigh might be known as a bit of a curmudgeon, but he refuses to see his new film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which revolves around a relentlessly optimistic teacher, as a departure.

The 65-year-old British writer-director is famous for gritty realism in movies such as “Naked,” about a strangely metaphysical, angry young man, and “Vera Drake,” about a 1950s illegal abortionist, for which he received one of his five Oscar nominations.

Still, Leigh has little patience for critics who marvel about “Happy-Go-Lucky” as “a change of pace” for the director.

“Rubbish,” he says of such reviews. “All my work combines a balance between the humorous and the pathetic.”

He traces this point of view, he says, to his Jewish upbringing in Manchester, England, though he now leads a secular life and eschews organized religion.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” received good reviews when it premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, and it marks a milestone of sorts for Leigh. At 65, he has some 20 plays and almost as many films under his belt. Ten of his films have been released in a DVD box set this year, some for the first time.

A series of conversations with Amy Raphael make up the new book “Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh,” which will hit U.S. stores this month. In the interviews, Leigh reveals candid reflections on his heritage, including comments on how some Jews pretend not to be Jewish.

Fear of being singled out as Jewish is more pronounced among British than American Jews, Leigh suggests in person.

“I was in New York recently, and if you come from London and you’re Jewish, it is remarkable to be somewhere where Rosh Hashanah is virtually a public holiday. Everything closes down.”

Leigh’s Yiddish-speaking paternal grandfather was born Meyer Lieberman (later Anglicized to “Leigh”) in what is now Belarus and arrived in England as “part of the great Jewish emigration west,” the director says.

Leigh’s physician father and midwife mother met through HaBonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, in 1936. Mike Leigh, in turn, became a HaBonim leader and traveled with the group to Israel on a ship as a teenager. The experience had a dramatic effect on his future work as an artist: “The atmosphere was one of chevrah, of sharing, openness and coming together — of making things happen by colluding, which describes the spirit of how I work with actors and the atmosphere of my rehearsals.”

But when Leigh returned to the United Kingdom, his overriding goal was to immerse himself in the theater. While attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he played down his background.

“If you’re perceived as the ‘Jewish’ filmmaker — particularly since that was not the agenda I was concerned with — it could only get in the way, so therefore, I was not interested in talking about it,” he says.

Leigh directed his first feature film, “Bleak Moments,” in 1971, and in the 1990s made a splash on the international scene with movies such as “Life is Sweet,” “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies.”

In “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), gets on with her life even as she encounters a seething driving instructor who eventually stalks her, a mentally ill transient, a bullying student and her dour sisters.

“She is an optimistic character, but more importantly, she is a ‘positivist,'” Leigh explains. “Poppy is someone who looks things in the eye, who deals with difficult matters as they arise, who is open and nonjudgmental. She cares and is motivated by her love for people … but none of these things in a soppy, sloppy or sentimental way.”

“Happy-Go-Lucky” is now playing at Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and opens Friday, Oct. 17 at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal