In recent interviews, filmmaker Andrew Haigh has expressed “doubts” about his creative decisions and a fear of being “typecast” as a gay filmmaker. This inner turmoil is part of what makes his work so honest and powerful. Take Lean On Pete, for example. Haigh’s latest flick — due out this week — is a brutal, clear-eyed tale about a boy who uses a horse to fill the void left by his depressed single father. It’s beautifully shot and has several uplifting moments, but what really hits home is Charley Plummer’s harrowing portrayal of a confused, emotionally broken teen. Suppressed trauma, and its eventual consequences, are a recurring theme in Haigh’s films.
Born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire — where his love of the English countryside was first kindled — Haigh spent time at boarding school during the early 1980s. After studying History at Newcastle University, he worked as an editor on huge blockbusters like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. But it wasn’t until the age of 30 that he directed his first short.
As is usual with Haigh’s movies, Oil (2004) examines the romantic shortcomings of a mixed-up protagonist. In this case, through the hazy prism of a head-splitting hangover. Very British and almost distractingly specific, it focuses on the mundane: “the colour of his sun tan in the light” and “too much vinegar on me chips”. The social realism could end up mind-numbingly boring, but here it feels intimate rather than dull.
Several more shorts followed — Nevada-set thinkpiece Markings (2005), wistful vignette Cahuenga Blvd (2005), Dakota Blue Richards-starring Five Miles Out (2009) — before Haigh finally snagged his first feature.
Greek Pete (2009) was pretty much panned by the critics, but its adventurous subject matter should be applauded. The lives of male prostitutes aren’t well documented on screen, and there are few films as visceral as Haigh’s feature-length debut. Still, it is not the most accessible part of his filmography, so Weekend (2011) or 45 Years (2015) might make for a gentler first encounter.
The former stars relative newcomers Tom Cullen and Chris New as lovers who force each other to confront their inner demons. With a budget of just £120,000, it won acclaim on the festival circuit and announced Haigh as an auteur of serious promise. At its core, Weekend is a heartbreaking romance about the transience of our emotions and the crippling self-doubt we all feel. It’s sort of like Brief Encounter but set in a concrete housing estate. If you’re not bawling by the gut-punching finale, then sorry, but you must be dead inside.
Shot largely in Nottingham, Weekend now enjoys cult status in the LGBTQ+ community, but Haigh has his misgivings about it. In 2015, he told the Observer that the “gay element” had “overshadowed” the story “because there is so little gay representation on screen”. Possibly as a result, he chose to frame his next project around a heterosexual relationship instead.
45 Years takes place in Norwich and is stuffed with breathtaking vistas of the local landscape. It takes time to get going, but keeps you engaged with a pair of outstanding central performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They play an aging couple whose picture perfect life is torn asunder when a past trauma resurfaces. The rest of the film is about trying to come to terms with their new circumstances.
As with the rest of Haigh’s films, there is power in what Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) choose not say. The long stares and pregnant pauses dictate meaning that will be obvious to anyone in a relationship. The rapidly changing expressions on Rampling’s face pull the viewer into her world as it collapses around her. This is a character study done properly, and one that will leave you broken by its depressing resolution. Often, you think you know someone, but then something happens that changes everything. 45 Years is the cinematic embodiment of that feeling.
The last entry in Haigh’s catalogue is Looking: The Movie. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the HBO television series, but it’s a good indicator of the director’s new global audience. Greek Pete, Weekend and 45 Years are very British movies made with a British cast and crew. Looking: The Movie and the upcoming Lean On Pete are set in America complete with Hollywood stars like Steve Buscemi. Could this be the start of Andrew Haigh’s new career in the international spotlight? We think he deserves it.
Top five Andrew Haigh films (in order of release)
Five Miles Out (Short) (2009)
Life and death are tackled sensitively in this powerful short about a family drama. Sent on a seaside trip with relatives to escape trauma back home, Cass (Dakota Blue Richards) meets an irritable young boy with a dangerous mission. What follows is a tense 18-minute dive into the mind of a confused young girl that everyone’s forgotten.
Greek Pete (2009)
Haigh’s first feature was by far his worst received. But there’s still much to be admired about this explicit docudrama. Set in central London, Greek Pete follows the life of a male escort in search of a quick money scheme. Containing hardcore sex scenes and a totally honest narrative, the film is a perfect example of Haigh’s unflinching commitment to truthful, realistic filmmaking.
Brutal yet uplifting, this very-British love story was the film that made everyone sit up and take notice. Premiering at SXSW festival where it won critical acclaim, Weekend is the story of a gay couple who meet on a night out and start a short-lived relationship. When one of them must leave the country, the two are forced to confront long-suppressed emotional issues. Two incredible lead performances make up the heart of this terrific indie tearjerker.
45 Years (2015)
Perhaps Haigh’s best known work, this beautifully acted romance bagged tons of awards. Based on a David Constantine novel, 45 Years tells the tale of an elderly couple approaching their 45th wedding anniversary. When they discover a chilling new development in the husband’s past, they must learn to navigate the dramatically altered landscape of their relationship.
Looking: The Movie (2016)
Billed as the fitting conclusion to US comedy show Looking, Haigh’s most recent effort might not be his most accessible. However, its dramatic chops are never in doubt. Another scorchingly candid take, this is Haigh in full, profound flow. The touching finale is appropriately sad, but with a hopeful tenderness. Worth a watch, even if you didn’t catch the HBO series.