Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh 1977

Having watched Career Girls again a few days ago, prompted me to revisit some other, earlier, Mike Leigh gems, among them Abigail's Party, Leigh's made-for-television movie from 1977.

What really struck me about Abigail's Party this time is how Leigh was quite obviously inspired by Nichols'/ Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Although Woolf is less a statement about class than an observation of marriage - although one could argue that the two are related - the parallels between the two films struck me as quite interesting. For starters, there is the obvious parallel of two couples being at the centre of the narrative. Never mind that Abigail's Party has one additional character, Sue, one whose functions it is to provide the narrative with its elephant in the room - the party of her daughter Abigail. Both Abigail and her party are frequently referred to by Sue and the other characters, however, we neither actually get to see Abigail nor the party. This has its parallel in Woolf in the non-existing son, invented by George and Martha to fill the void between them and to make up for the son they never had. In fact, all couples in Woolf and Abigail are childless.

Another fascinating parallel between the two films concerns some of the characters. While Beverly, who is at the centre of Abigail's Party has her equivalent in Martha, Angela, the simpleton, is akin to Honey in Woolf. On the same token, the shift in the dynamics between the two couples in Abigail's Party is also not dissimilar to Woolf as both Albee/ Nichols and Leigh allow their characters to develop and reveal unexpected strengths and weaknesses. In other words, both films avoid easy categorisation of their protagonists, and as their attitudes shift, so do our sympathies towards them. For instance when Beverly, who, through most of the film comes across as obnoxious and pretentious, reveals an unexpected sympathy and vulnerability at the end when faced with the sudden death of her husband whom only minutes ago she had nothing but contempt for.

However, although Leigh may have used Woolf as a blueprint and inspiration for his own film, there is no denying that at their heart, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Abigail's Party have been made for different reasons with both films having a rather different premise. That said, Leigh's mockery of the middle-class and those who aspire to be part of it may be at the core of his own film, Nichols', too, also is not entirely without its own statement on class as Martha's contempt for George is based on his lack of ambition which prevents him of becoming head of the faculty which would have resulted in a step up the social ladder, not to mention in a rise in salary.