Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Who's Who (Mike Leigh, 1979)


Mike Leigh’s Who’s Who isn’t the best of his works for the BBC, often seeming rather ungainly and strained both in its individual devices and in its contrasts and juxtapositions; still, Leigh being Leigh, it still hits a generous number of targets. The film's central character is Alan, an administrative worker at a London stockbroking firm, weirdly obsessed with the world of nobility and titles from which he’s inherently excluded, but of which he receives ample glimpses via the more highly-bred and better-connected professionals at the workplace; these in turn divide between the practiced if distant courtesy of the old school, and the crasser younger generation who cross into sexually harassing the female staff and holding loud obnoxious conversations in the office hallways. Unstable and pitiful as this all is, the film sometimes seems to be carrying multiple regrets for a bygone age in which these distinctions were better defined and more rigidly observed: Alan’s delusional notion of self-elevation through osmosis (he bores everyone with his knowledge of Royal family trivia; his other main hobby is writing requests for signed photographs of celebrities) is somewhat pathetic, although, in a way, indicative of the desire for greater affinity and transparency that’s contributed to transforming the notion of Royalty in subsequent decades. It’s all laid on a little thick at times though, and the film’s main set-pieces (including a misfiring dinner party attended by two of the young stockbrokers, at which for example the host chef ends up serving canned celery soup because the guest who was supposed to bring the avocados didn’t show up) don’t entirely cohere. At the end, although no doubt only temporarily, Alan succumbs to more accessible pleasures, joining his colleague in watching through the window a rather creepy ongoing flirtation in a nearby building; in the circumstances, this might actually constitute a healthier form of voyeurism?

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