Put seven actors into a room for 16 weeks with Mike Leigh and no script and what do you get? “Grief.” Leigh has fashioned their research and improvisations into a downbeat portrait of widowed, middle-class Dorothy (Lesley Manville), struggling to bring up a recalcitrant daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) in a cramped home in a London suburb in 1957. The superbly detailed acting is initially riveting, but the wholesale lack of plot eventually casts a pall rather than a spell. Leigh’s fascination with his own process has overtaken his creation of a dramatic product.
On her pitch-perfect living-room set, the pleated skirts, neat cardigans and authentically bleached colors of Alison Chitty’s costumes don’t just capture the period. They match Dorothy’s faded hopes, as pinched as her waistline, as her life dwindles away in front of her.
Every day — and almost every scene — is the same, or as near as makes little difference. Dorothy’s live-in elderly brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) goes to work, as he has for almost 45 years, at an insurance firm before returning home for a glass of sherry and extended silences punctuated by memories. There’s no TV (and, puzzlingly, not even a radio) to help while away the strained hours.
Having lost her husband in the war, Dorothy is trapped in increasingly straitened circumstances — she can only just afford her cleaner — and from the opening scene it’s clear that the business of keeping up appearances is proving an ever-increasing strain.
The only bright spots on the horizon are three visitors to the house. Garrulous Gertie (a grandly tyrannical Marion Bailey who only stops speaking to take a breath) and mousier yet steely Muriel (a delicious Wendy Nottingham) are friends from Dorothy’s past and ineffectual godmothers to Victoria; they’ve married well and enjoy popping in to gossip and drip condescension. Better still is David Horovitch’s roaringly self-satisfied Hugh, an unthinking doctor and old friend of Edwin whose love of his own voice is only exceeded by his love of his own bad jokes.
Dorothy is pinning her expectations on the academic prowess of her clearly unpopular daughter, whom she’s made the focus of her entire life. At the same time, she’s bewildered and terrified by her; Victoria is monosyllabic and almost permanently rigid with anger at her mother, whom she treats with disdain.
Even though this illustration of what would soon be termed “the generation gap” takes place in the 1950s, complete with a clumsy reference to the death of James Dean, “Rebel Without a Cause” it most certainly is not.
There is almost no shouting, much less swearing. The nearest anyone gets to an argument is a drawn-out wrangle across several scenes about whether or not 15-year-old Victoria should be allowed to drink a glass of sherry. Her teenage angst is presented in tiny, surly yet polite acts of defiance, climaxing — is that the word? — when she slams a door before marching up her room.
Until the final scene (of more than 20), it’s no exaggeration to say that almost (but not quite) as much happens as in “Waiting for Godot.” But where Beckett’s play paradoxically illustrates boredom and confinement via galvanizing humor, the doggedly bleak “Grief” grows monotonous.
Leigh is continuing his theme of excoriating the middle-class for its ruthlessly repressive patterns of best behavior at the expense of honest emotion. But he’s taking a sledgehammer to crack a dramatic walnut, and instead of developing drama he merely presents a static situation and an argument that’s seriously stacked from the outset.
Despite eloquent playing — the minute calibrations of the increasingly drawn and frightened Manville and lost-to-the-past Kelly are genuinely touching — “Grief” hits the law of diminishing returns long before its two hours of traffic jam are up.