The object of Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest film, is to make the viewer care about the joys and sorrows in the lives of a group of late-middle-aged friends and, for a film with no great deal of plot in the classical sense, Leigh’s endeavour is quite an achievement. Weeks after you have seen the picture, its characters are still freshly and poignantly etched on your memory.
The story in Another Year revolves around Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily married couple who can safely look forward to their peaceful retirement years with no more worries their unmarried son’s carefree life.
Any sense of absolute contentment the viewer might obtain from the film’s central couple, however, is quickly dispensed with in a powerful opening scene that sets the tone for the entire piece. The film kicks off with a massive close-up of Imelda Staunton, another Mike Leigh regular (Vera Drake), who in a brilliant cameo gives a portrayal of a wretchedly unhappy woman unable to share the reasons of her misery to her medical counsellor. This prologue not only introduces one of the main characters (Gerri, the counsellor), but also serves as an emotional punch that prepares the viewer for the rugged face of Tom and Gerri’s seemingly edgeless existence. Had the film started in the couple’s comfortable suburban house, where the action is mostly set, the viewer would have been deceptively ushered into the cheerful territory of Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh’s previous film. Another Year might not be the filmmaker’s bleakest picture, but it’s not his happiest either, a layer of sadness prevailing over every scene.
The misery of the film comes not, admittedly, from the central couple, but from a group of friends who have been unluckier than them when drawing the lots in the lottery of life.
Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri’s co-worker and old friend, plays the role of the recurrent visitor. Gerri’s home and friendship are the only shelter where she can seek refuge from her profound misery and loneliness, which she tries to conceal in compulsive conversation and heavy drinking. Her emotional crush on Gerri’s much younger son bears testimony to the character’s disorientation, not only in a society that ultimately condemns anyone who is unable to adapt to its family conventions, but also in her position in her own lifespan. By refusing to belong to a certain age group, Mary puts forward one of the central themes of the film: the fear of a generation confronted with a final stage of life which doesn’t live up to their own expectations.
Mary’s male counterpart is Ken (Peter Wight), Tom’s old friend, an overweight and alcoholic loner with some, maybe superficial, feelings for Mary. As she rejects his advances, probably scared of the reflection of her own unresolved issues in him, she makes clear that, at least in the vicious logic of their lives, two unhappy people don’t make a happy couple.
Mary is the character that sets the drama into motion. As her parasitic behaviour develops, the intensity of her desperate affection for Gerri’s family puts an unbearable strain on their friendship. While there is little indication of the limits to Gerri’s compassion and sympathy at he beginning of the film, we can distinctly see them here. She will tolerate Mary’s needy, hysteric demeanor insofar as it doesn’t affect in the least her family’s stability and self-contentment.
It is at this point that the viewer is confronted with the moral dilemma of the authenticity of Tom and Gerri’s goodness and altruism. Are they really so good or are they using their wrecked friends to feel better about the fact that, for all its comfort and self-satisfaction, they are leading an uneventful and dull existence? As he always does in his films, Leigh doesn’t take sides when presenting his characters. He allows the viewers to take the privileged position of the fly on the wall and decide by themselves.
Another Year is a quintessential Mike Leigh film. Its overextended dialogue scenes, where things are said rather than happen, can be traced back to his almost legendary method of lengthy improvisation and rehearsal sessions. Yet, for all the thinness of conventional plot, the movie is formally framed in four distinct episodes. Spanning one year, the film follows the passing of the four seasons, which allows for the dramatic development of the characters. Dick Pope, Leigh’s long-time cinematographer, shies away from the bleak monochromatic tones of films like Naked or the burst in color of his latest collaboration with Leigh in Happy-Go-Lucky and gives different spirit, atmosphere and look to each of the narrative episodes of the film.
The cast of Mike Leigh regulars is superb in each and every role. Broadbent and Sheen convincingly convey the complicity that renders the happy couple credible, but it is for Lesley Manville’s poignant portrayal of Mary that the film will be remembered. Manville has been working with Mike Leigh for three decades and has always delivered excellent work in her more often than not brief performances in his films. She was memorable as the snobbish neighbour in High Hopes or as the down-to-earth social worker in her single scene in Secrets and Lies. She was granted leading status in All or Nothing to remarkable effect, but it’s in Another Year that she has finally achieved greatness. Independently of the award scrutiny her performance will be subjected to, her Mary ranks already up there with Alison Steadman’s Beverly in Abigail’s Party or Brenda Blethy’s Cynthia in Secrets and Lies as one of the best performances in the work of the greatest actors’ director of our time.
Another Year is a film that only Mike Leigh could have made, but it is arguably also a film that only a 67-year-old man could have made, because what with all the in-house ingredients of a Leigh film, the insightful observation of social manners, the punctilious description of everyday detail, we can discover a new aspect in this characteristically multifaceted slice of life. For the first time, Leigh presents us with a group of people who, independently of their degree of contentment and happiness, are all confronted with the inclement truth of mortality and the painful limits of their lives.
Another Year will be released in the U.S. December 29, 2010.