If you've any doubt of the difference between English and American cultures, watch this early Mike Leigh flick and then think about the fact that it was made for television. The writing in this dark little number is better than that of most of the movies released over here, let alone anything American-made you'll ever see on television.
These are dark character sketches, and I too was reminded of Leigh's Naked as watched, though this movie doesn't share so much of Naked's explicit philosophizing. It does share similarly benighted characters, however, and a central character with the same shiftless way and easy ability to say whatever pops into his head.
Phil Daniels portrays this character, Mark, the story's wise fool: he knows enough to understand his situation is a horrible one; he's quite adept at analyzing whatever goes on around him, and he's revolted by it; but he does little to extricate himself from the situation; his attitude reflects that of most in the film, expect perhaps for his aunt who is always somewhat futilely trying to adjust the status quo.
Mark and his brother Colin and their father (who looks perfectly like an older Phil Daniels) are all on the dole, along with Gary Oldman's character Coxy.
As Mark's half-witted brother, Tim Roth really steals the show; he's so deep into his part, it's easy to forget he's acting. The character development in this story belongs mainly to Roth's character and though the movie seems to start out focusing equally on all involved, events gradually accumulate to have the greatest effect upon him. Interaction especially with Coxy and his brother stirs him to life and the consequences are both amusing and touching. Some viewers won't be happy with the ending--the change may not be profound enough for them--but the change is there and it's a sign of inward struggle, a slight pulsing signal of hope .
Kudos also to Marion Bailey who plays the boys' mother. Her role is not a particularly sympathetic one, but in one striking scene when she plays hurt, your heart goes out to this woman anyway. You understand that beneath her surly exterior there's a woman needing affection from her sons.
Often amusing and surprisingly touching despite its torpid atmosphere, this cunningly simple movie is most greatly enrichened by its characters, many of whom will stay with me for quite some time.
(Footnote: As I watched Naked, I thought that Mike Leigh may be the only director qualified to make a film of Martin Amis's London Fields; Meantime confirms his qualifications for me.)