NEW YORK — MIKE LEIGH is one of Britain's most respected filmmakers, but his movies have not been seen by Americans outside of a few film festivals. Now that's changing with ``High Hopes,'' a new satire that's been opening all across the United States. Like some other filmmakers who have cropped up over the years, such as the late John Cassavetes and the young Rob Nilsson, the adventurous Mr. Leigh wants to capture the rhythms and eccentricities of human nature as it exists outside the movies.
The method he chooses is improvisation by his actors - which he observes carefully, and then turns into a key ingredient of his finished work. The results of this process can be fascinating, and they can also be disappointing if they're not handled exactly right. There's both success and failure in ``High Hopes.''
The film's most important character is an elderly woman who just wants to live peacefully in her own home - a rented home, in a neighborhood that's been ``gentrified'' by well-to-do yuppies who resent this old and unwealthy lady in their midst.
The other main characters are her children. Cyril is a workingman who shares his mother's working-class values. But his sister, Valerie, would love to be a yuppie herself, and pushes herself and her husband as hard as she can in that direction.
All these figures are cleverly acted and smartly directed. It's obvious that Leigh sympathizes most with the old woman and with Cyril, her proudly working-class son, and he gives them a fair share of dignity in the film even though their predicaments are often comic and sometimes hilarious. When they're on the screen, ``High Hopes'' is a social satire that's both entertaining and compassionate.
What holds the movie back from greatness is its portrait of yuppie life, especially when a couple of wealthy suburbanites enter the story. Their names are Rupert and Laetitia, and they positively ooze obnoxious habits. They're also badly overacted.
In a movie that's often marvelously subtle, they come on like bulls in a London china shop, knocking the place apart with overdone dialogue and behavior. We could have gotten the point - that these people are crude and unthinking - without so much crudeness and stupidity flying all over the screen. During their scenes, ``High Hopes'' is less a satire than a farce, and it loses a lot of its impact.
The movie is worth seeing despite its flaws, though, and it will do a great service if it calls American attention to Leigh as one of Britain's most inventive filmmakers. I wish his earlier movies would get revived for American audiences - especially ``Bleak Moments,'' his portrait of a dismal love affair, and ``Meantime,'' a brilliant examination of working-class family life.
But for now, I'm glad ``High Hopes'' is getting so much visibility on American screens, and I have high hopes it will give Leigh's career a major new boost.