High Hopes

High Hopes

I wouldn't say that Cyril is a hypocrite, exactly.

I was told before I watched this that it contained a friend of mine's favorite socialist character in film. It's easy to see why. What Mike Leigh captures here is the compassionate socialist. The core of his socialist ideal is not necessarily economic or political. He talks the talk, but he's not throwing bombs or defecting to the Soviet Union (not that it would have worked out for him in 1988...). He's simply living as best he can in a system that is everything he detests.

He's snappish. He's got in him a vague anger that is present in his body language, his demeanor. He's sarcastic, though that is, I have been told, a British quality not limited to socialists. He's got a rough edge, but where that comes from is not hatred or bitterness--indeed, one of the most powerful moments of the film is his expressing his fear of becoming bitter--but from compassion. When your ideology is, at its most simplified, about making sure everyone has what they need to survive, and you live in a nation that embraces the total opposite of that (predicated on the idea of freedom, certainly), despair sets in.

Cyril has some incredible moments in this film. Standing in a graveyard, faced with his heroes' words, he realizes that he will never see the changes he so desperately wishes would come. He realizes he is not effecting them, or so he thinks. It hits him--and it hit me--hard. But what I see that Cyril can't is that while he isn't a revolutionary, he's still a compassionate, decent person. He treats his mother with love and respect. He helps a wayward stranger. He genuinely cares for Shirley, his girlfriend, and this is helpfully contrasted by his materialistic sister, a shrill, equally desperate woman with a philandering, crude boor of a husband. Cyril, who has flaws of his own, stands on his principles in the small ways that matter to those around him, as best he can.

The film captures an idea that I have considered before, the idea that family is the template for communism. If you remove the tribalism from it, the idea of family, of a group you love unconditionally, or at least profoundly, and that is built upon mutual support, is as communal, certainly, as it can get. Cyril, despite his differences with his sister, is not the chiefest source of conflict in her life. He clearly views her with some consternation, and he isn't seen to stand for her antics. But her biggest source of conflict is her husband, who is more or less a caricature. He exists to give Valerie just a touch more depth than her crass materialism. He is a large part of her angst and despair, and her yearning for family--as seen in the birthday party scene--is denied her not just because of her materialism (which favors spectacle, as Debord would have us know, rather than substance), but also because of her husband's similar shallowness. They are bad because they are materialists. They are victims of materialism.

In contrast to this, Cyril would appear a saint even if he weren't helping wayward souls and caring for his mother despite his misgivings on the matter. Leigh allows him his flaws--see the aforementioned misgivings for one--but shows his struggle. He is a man who fears hypocrisy, who sees his role in the capitalist system he was born to as such. And this breeds despair and a bit of sarcasm, a hard edge. But his fear? His fear is not merely being ineffectual. He fears bitterness. This is the key to knowing Cyril, I feel. He is terrified not that he will bring no change, but that he will be changed. He does not want to lose his compassion. Cyril embodies compassion, and even his failings derive from that.

And that allows a further insight. Were he born in a Soviet state, he would rail equally against it as he does against Thatcher's England, not because he's a born rebel, but because systems lack compassion. We too often become blinded by our ideologies, I think, and we latch onto what we are told is the opposite of what we exist in as the solution to the failings around us. Still, I remain a socialist through and through. I simply hope to be a compassionate one.

So he is not a hypocrite. But I know why he could look like one, and I know why he fears his perceived ineffectual existence might lead him to lose that core of his being. I just hope I could be even equal to his flawed measure.

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