Meantime (1983), directed by Mike Leigh, depicts the struggles of an unemployed working class family and their social circle in the early 80s. While Leigh is vehement that his movie is not a statement on Thatcherism, it nevertheless captures a snapshot of the many folks “on the dole” (on welfare, presumably out of work) during a culturally fraught era that essentially brought an end to the working class in Britain. Like most of the director’s work, though, it’s more to do with the relationships between incredibly well-drawn people and what results from their nuanced interaction. Typically, Leigh collaborates with his actors to create characters based on real people, then constructs the events in the film around the characters’ actions– there’s never a script per se, but his films never seem aimless. Even when aimlessness is the point, as it is here, I’ve never found any Leigh joint to be dull.
This one has a shockingly young, skin-headed Gary Oldman banging around in a giant metal pot, and if that doesn’t sell you on Meantime, then I just don’t know what will.
Whoooo lives in a pot at the end of the lane? NA! ZI! OLD! MAN!
Unlike most of the movies I write about for this project, Meantime was a first-time watch for me! I started it knowing very little, and I ended up floored by its incisiveness. I did NOT expect to find points of relation in this movie at all, or see myself in it, but see myself I did, and I am the WORST! [Ok I’m not Gary the neo-nazi, he’s actually the worst. sort of.] But we’ll get to that.
Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!
As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!
- Meantime‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 9/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Gary plays Coxy, a young skinhead. It’s Oldman’s first major onscreen role and it’s an energized, weird performance.
- Does Gary Die in this one? No.
Rothing out with Tiny Tim.
Meantime focuses on Mark (Phil Daniels), a young guy whose lack of purpose has turned into a listless ugliness which is often directed toward his brother, Colin (precious BABY Tim Roth), for lack of other easy targets. It’s accepted that Colin is “slow” and a socially awkward chap, and never in the movie is his condition given a label, but it seems pretty clear to me that Colin is a guy with autism. Given his economic standing and the period, it is not surprising that he’s probably never been diagnosed.
I guess I should note here that in an already-dated interview/retrospective with Tim Roth in 2006 (available on The Criterion Channel or on the Criterion disc), the actor was asked if this character was “retarded” (ugh their words) but Roth said probably not, he’s just been worn down entirely. Well, fine, Tim, but one can be disabled and “worn down” simultaneously. He’s also a concentrated symbol of his family, and probably a representation of a whole class of on-the-dole folks.
Lest you think this movie dour, here’s Tim Roth eating a laundry basket before Tidepod popping was cool.
The adult brothers live with their parents in a housing project, and even share a small room. This informs and is pretty representative of their relationship, which presumably hasn’t evolved from their youth. Colin’s habits annoy Mark, Mark bullies Colin to feel superior, and Colin seems to shrink more and more; in public, when Mark is present Colin falls silent. Still, there is a sense of acceptance that the siblings share about being stuck together in the “meantime,” the pair just exists in the exhausting holding pattern of unemployment and welfare culture. Their parents, while understandably also worn down by their lot in life, are dismissive of their boys and especially of Colin, whom they perceive as burdensome. To them, their youngest son is tiresomely childlike and even lacking in personhood; he is rarely given the right to make decisions about anything.
“My knees don’t LOOK special…”
All that shifts when their well-meaning, unintentionally condescending middle class aunt offers Colin a gig working for her on some home improvement tasks. Mark’s personal frustrations boil and turn to misdirected jealousy and animosity towards his brother– as his own life is so deeply unfulfilling, he can’t be supportive of Colin’s gig. To Mark’s mind, an employed Colin is a threat, and probably doubly so because Colin has always been the weakest figure in Mark’s life. If Colin is suddenly powerful, is Mark the weakling in the community? How can Mark even relate to his brother if he’s not harassing him over his lowly status?
When you want to go cheat at the casino but your bro didn’t count the toothpicks accurately
This is the part where I mention that I, like Mark, have a younger sibling with autism and other special needs! Yes, it’s true. We are eight years apart in age, and our relationship is thankfully nothing like Mark and Colin’s. Except it kind of is. Family dynamics are always hard to explain, but that’s especially true about the neuro-diverse or disabled kid and their neurotypical sibling. Siblings like me can be called Glass Children, meaning we are looked through or past (like clear glass) as the sibling with special needs absorbs all of the energy, care, attention, etc. The Glass Child typically serves as a third parent and a caregiver. Speaking from experience, sometimes it’s doubly difficult when you’re also the ONLY other kid in the family (as it is with Mark, being Colin’s only sibling).
Glassy but not classy.
Some of us handle it well, but there are always those who are dangerously self-sacrificial and annoyingly angelic (I’ve heard the term “toxic positivity” thrown about), while others are a lot more overtly angry about their position (and we probably all need therapy). But even if we adore our siblings (and I love mine pretty well), I would be shocked if all glass children didn’t have a bit of Mark to them. Growing up I was generally very OK in the supporting role, but, like Mark, I definitely formed a little personal narrative about my own superiority. I often defined myself by my ability to serve my sister and our family, so if something shifted and I couldn’t meet those needs, I was LOST. Even worse, if I found WASN’T NEEDED– well hellloooo identity crisis! You can imagine how that affects my relationships in general.
So that’s what’s happening with Mark. In his aunt’s efforts to give herself a good pat on the back, she’s looked right through the glass child (probably cause he talks a big game). At one point, the aunt even pointedly calls Mark Colin’s “keeper.” So even if Mark resents his role as his brother’s helper, an employed Colin means Mark is DOUBLY unemployed– both in the actual and familial sense, and seemingly his life is then even more purposeless than before.
That doesn’t mean that Mark isn’t a total dick– after Colin has a miserable time getting lost trying to use public transport on the way to his aunt’s house, he finally arrives to his first day on the job flustered and depressed, only to find Mark waiting for him alongside his aunt. Mark again bullies his brother into silence, and Colin finally loses what little confidence he had. He leaves, quitting his job before he ever began. It’s absolutely heart-breaking to watch.
He puts the mean in meantime.
In short– I don’t want to identify with Mark, he’s awful. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that to my sister, but also… if we were in a similar situation, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t at least sympathize with Mark’s mindset.
You’d never guess that they both look really good in Prada, would you?
That’s where Coxy the skinhead (young Gary) comes in. Coxy is a nasty piece of work who Mark sometimes passes the time with at the pub, though he clearly doesn’t take Coxy’s hatefulness or racism seriously. For all we see, Coxy is likely homeless and socially bottom of the barrel, and it’s possible that Mark chooses to hang out with him occasionally to feel better about himself. Not that we’re to feel terribly sorry for Coxy– he is a skinhead, after all, but so also were many young guys of this era and standing (perhaps, juuuust perhaps, there is a link between the downtrodden aimless youngster and hatred born of listlessness).
As Colin happens to fall in with him, we learn Coxy is also a weenie. When the pair gets in close quarters with a black man in an apartment elevator, he runs his mouth to provoke the man but takes no opportunity to get into it, clearly intimidated. Coxy’s attempt at a racist joke results in the man hitting him upside the head (and knocking off his silly little hat), after which Coxy just simmers quietly. When he’s let out of the lift and a safe distance away, he hollers behind him “I’ll have you!” The other man laughs. Like my indoor cats who jump each other when they can’t get at the the sassy squirrel outside the window, Coxy kicks at Colin on the way down the hall. He has no idea what to do with his aggression.
These boots are made for lounging and that’s just what they’ll do. OR: What’s up, Doc Martens?
Sorry for the lame jokes, as always, they’re just for kicks.
But to Colin, Coxy is empowered. He reacts in anger. He provokes people. He hits on Colin’s mild-mannered crush. From Colin’s hopeless perspective, Coxy doesn’t take his lowly status lying down. When Colin agrees to the gig at his aunt’s house, he plans to use his earnings to purchase a pair of Doc Martens, just like Coxy’s. When the job falls through, Colin is again adrift, small, helpless-feeling, so he does the one thing he thinks will bring him some of the power he believes Coxy possesses.
You can always tell a Milford Man…
After Colin finally returns from his horrible time of losing his way, his job, the attention of his crush, and his dream of Doc Martens, he sequesters himself in his room. Eventually, Colin’s admission that he has lost his job leads to a blow-up of family tensions and his father declares him utterly useless. However, Colin makes what stand he can, shakes off the pile-on, and tells his parents to shut up and leave him to the only space he has. Impressed by this show of strength and penitent about being an asshole, Mark defends his brother for the first time and shuts the door to their shared room. His stirring show of support touches Colin, and at last the brothers connect– not as aimless souls, but with mutual respect.
When you wanna love on your sib but they’re more into stimming atm (relatable)
The next morning, Colin reveals to Mark what he’s done. In an honestly shocking moment, his unzipped jacket hood reveals his freshly shaved head.
It’s a moment of reckoning for the Glass Child, as Mark realizes that his own pursuit of identity has led his little brother on a similarly ill-advised quest for empowerment with frightening results. Of course, the shaved head is not just a fashion statement– it’s a symbol of violence with obviously racist connotations. [In a scene that becomes retrospectively worrisome, prior to revealing his new look, Colin has a brief interaction with the black man from the elevator: the man makes a friendly gesture, but Colin, previously uninterested in race, silently stares at his neighbor.]
The shaved head is Colin’s attempt to protect himself from being unbearably crushed into obscurity, and he’s visibly ashamed of his choice when he shows himself to Mark, but his burgeoning associations between neo-nazism and self worth are painfully clear. Thankfully, Mark sees it too. “My brother, the skinhead,” he murmurs, then corrects himself: “No, you’re not.” He thoughtfully touches Colin’s baldness as if it were an injury— which it is. “Are you sorry you done it?” Colin admits he is.
I wanna make a bowling ball joke or something but I can’t because this kills me
The end of the film hints at a positive outcome for the brothers and their relationship, but the noise of parents at the breakfast table in the next room imply that this “meantime” will continue. It’s a sobering take on the numbing affect of a fraught period (despite what director Mike Leigh may claim) but as Mark and Colin smile at each other, it’s also a quiet victory for the glass child and his marginalized brother. Mutual respect is an empowering force, and its source isn’t hatred– it’s kindness.