WEBTAKES: Another Year
Reviewed by Leonard Quart  

Ruth Sheen as Gerri and Jim Broadbent as Tom

Ruth Sheen as Gerri and Jim Broadbent as Tom

Produced by Georgina Lowe, Danielle Brandon, Gail Egan, and Tessa Ross; written and directed by Mike Leigh; cinematography by Dick Pope; edited by Jon Gregory; art direction by Andrew Rothschild; Set Decoration by Sophia Chowdhury, original music by Gary Yershon; starring Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, David Bradley. Color, 129 minutes. Distributed by Sony Classics.

After Happy-Go-Lucky, his most boldly colorful, upbeat, and breeziest film, Mike Leigh, in Another Year, has created a somber, darker work. Divided into four chapters representing the seasons, Another Year displays the seamless ensemble acting of many Leigh regulars—actors with real faces conveying the nuances and reality of human behavior. The characters are late-middle aged, close to Leigh’s age of sixty-seven—ordinary people whose options in life are contracting.

The main action takes place in the home of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen performing a variation of Shirley--the wise, loving friend she played in High Hopes more than two decades ago), a happily married couple satisfied with their jobs, nurturing and compassionate with their adult son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and their friends, and engaged in life-affirming activities like growing vegetables on their allotment. The couple is at ease with each other and with their lives--uniquely so for characters in a Leigh film. An almost incandescent quality in Tom and Gerri is heightened by their interactions with the emotional cripples who surround them, relationships that form the core of the film. A prologue sets the stage when a forbiddingly impassive, deeply broken-down Janet (Imelda Staunton) appears for a counseling session in Gerri’s office. However compassionate, Gerri cannot reach Janet, whose resistance to therapy and genuine communication deems change impossible.

Among the friends Tom and Gerri host for frequent dinners in their comfortable, lived-in home are Mary (Leslie Manville), a fiftyish divorced secretary who works at Gerri’s clinic, and Ken (Peter Wight), Tom’s boyhood friend from Derby. Although hardly impassive, both are in sad shape, perhaps beyond hope. Mary’s frenetic talking, clumsy sexual innuendo, heavy drinking, and nervous tics express a depth of loneliness most overtly registered in her hunger for a man—she comes on to Joe, some 20 years her junior, and displays a cruel, embarrassing resentment when he brings his new girlfriend Katie to dinner to meet his parents. Barely aware of others in the midst of her jittery, self-absorbed free associations, Mary needs people to listen to her. Ken is as sloppy as Mary is well, or overly well-groomed. He drinks, eats and smokes too much—perhaps self-destructively so—hates his job and his solitary life, ruefully claiming as his motto: “Less thinking, more drinking.” In his way, he expresses depths of loneliness equal to Mary’s and a deep resentment that youth has passed him by. Keenly observing his characters, Leigh constructs some stunning scenes. When Tom, Gerri, and Joe attend the winter funeral of Tom’s sister-in-law, all the dysfunction of his brother Ronnie’s family comes spilling out. Ronnie (David Bradley), appears isolated and almost as mute as Janet as he sits in his weathered house on a dreary, mean street in Derby. His only son Carl (Martin Savage), explosive and punkish in all black, arrives late to the funeral, bristling with rage toward his father. It all rings so true, creating an even starker contrast with the serene calm of Gerri and Tom’s life—and their loving relationship with Joe.

It’s Mary, however, who occupies the center of the film, her self-pitying and self-deceiving behavior both pathetic and slightly risible. She treats Ken—the only man who displays the slightest interest in her—with utter contempt. Through lingering long takes and close-ups, the camera captures Mary’s attractive, well-preserved face, made up a bit too-heavily in her attempt to hide her age and a frayed quality beneath--whether from a hang-over, gnawing envy, or a profound misery. Manville carefully calibrates Mary’s upbeat manner to reveal a disturbing, sometimes spiteful unrest. There is just too much of Mary, demonstrating one of Leigh’s few flaws (to my mind)—a tendency to allow his trademark stylization of character to turn cartoonish at times (Aubrey in Life is Sweet comes to mind). Although Mary cannot be seen merely as a caricature, it is hard at times to understand how Tom and Gerri tolerate her--unless Gerri, an attentive and perceptive listener, feels the need to play therapist in her off-hours. Whatever the case, Manville and Leigh have collaborated to create a fully-layered, memorable character who can irritate, embarrass, and elicit viewer sympathy.

Leigh’s view of the human condition has always mixed desperation with the possibility of happiness—a vision deriving from sharp observation of daily behavior, not some abstract philosophic perspective. But the question remains: What is Leigh trying to project by centering the film on and rubbing our faces in Mary’s despair? Of course, different kinds of hysterical, destructive, and pathetic characters have been an integral part of the Leigh oeuvre (e.g., Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies; David Thewlis in Naked; Tim Spall in All or Nothing), as have more upbeat ones. In Another Year, however, Leigh’s unsentimental and unsparing portrait of Mary is the film’s most indelible. Here, as in so many of his films, Leigh is aiming to capture the uniqueness and irreducibility of even the simplest and most ordinary of people.

Yet all is not anguish and desolation. When, in the film’s final scenes, Mary arrives unannounced at Tom and Gerri’s home for solace, her last bit of bravado shattered, she encounters the emotionally closed-off Ronnie. Self-consciously and uncharacteristically, she tries to be responsive to his situation, his detachment pushing her into deeper depression. When the entire family, including Joe and Katie, gather for dinner, all but Mary, who looks utterly forlorn, appear at ease with life. Although the long-take image of a pitiful Mary is the final one we see, it cannot be taken as the film’s final word. It is people like Tom and Gerri, in their meaningful work and loving familial connections that the film values and even celebrates. They have found a way of dealing with time’s passage and the whiff of mortality—something Ken and Mary are incapable of doing, perhaps, in part, because loneliness so overwhelms them.

If Another Year is not Leigh’s very best work, it remains a poignant, humanly truthful film that, through a minimal narrative, a great deal of talk, penetrating close-ups and reaction shots, and unhurried editing rhythms—captures the emotional intricacy of ordinary life, with its mixture of joy and extreme pain.

Leonard Quart is a Cineaste contributing editor and author or co-author of several books on film.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.