Film Review: “Another Year”

by Jason LeRoy on January 14, 2011

Peter Wight and Lesley Manville vice away their sorrows in Mike Leigh's ANOTHER YEAR.

starring: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Imelda Staunton, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Martin Savage, Karina Fernandez

directed by: Mike Leigh

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some language

It takes a certain kind of person to really love a Mike Leigh film. The venerated writer/director has spent the past four decades mining the depths of the working- and middle-class British experience; his first feature film was tellingly titled Bleak Moments (1971). His films invariably shine an unflinching (and frequently unflattering) light on an ensemble of painstakingly developed characters (played by peerless casts of fearless, unsexy British actors – click here for Roger Ebert’s amusing thoughts on “the matter of the chins” in this particular film), pausing to contemplate their every flaw, fancy, and fear.

In short, to savor Leigh’s films, you must share his unyielding fascination with the human animal in and of itself, without any deus ex machina or race against the clock to provoke suspense. I am one such person, so Another Year had me at ‘ello.

Structured over the course of four consecutive seasons and beginning on a hopeful note with spring (so we know things will only get bleaker), Leigh’s latest has at its core a remarkably stable and grounded married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). Tom and Gerri are aging hippies who’ve been married for several decades; they have a 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a community lawyer. Tom is a geologist, and Jerri is a medical counselor. In addition to their careers, Tom and Gerri pass the time by lovingly tending to their vast and fruitful garden. The significance of this metaphor is perhaps a bit too obvious, but poignant nonetheless.

As the film begins, Jerri is counseling a furiously sad housewife named Janet (the great Imelda Staunton, in a brief but haunting performance). But if we think Janet is the most depressing person we could possibly meet in this film, that’s because it’s only just begun. Soon we make the acquaintance of Mary (Lesley Manville, giving the performance of a lifetime), one of Gerri’s work colleagues, with whom she shares a pleasant friendship outside of work.

Everyone knows someone like Mary, or someone who will be Mary someday. She is 50 but insists on carrying on as if she weren’t a day over 35. She is unmarried, childless, and has a severe drinking problem. She is remarkably selfish, consumed by her own petty dramas, interested in other people only insofar as they will tolerate, embrace, and affirm her. She is a British lower-middle-class Blanche DuBois, clinging desperately to her faded beauty and dangerous delusions, but without any family to anchor her. Instead she has Tom and Gerri, whom she leans on freely, wholly, and without apology.

But Mary is not Tom and Gerri’s only sad drunk friend. There is also Ken (Peter Wight), an obese pub-dwelling government employee, friends with Tom since they were young boys. Like Mary, Ken depends entirely too much on Tom and Gerri to provide him with emotional support as he navigates the increasingly hopeless twists and turns of his own life.

But Tom and Gerri do not resent or judge Mary and Ken for their drinking and indulgent sadness; they are bottomless pools of empathy, all soft looks and encouraging embraces. Because they are so comfortable and emotionally fulfilled in their own relationship, they are able to overflow that love and peace to their troubled friends. Which is a double-edged sword, because while Mary and Ken crave their support, they also envy their bond.

Each of the film’s four acts has some sort of social centerpiece, usually a gathering at Tom and Gerri’s London home. As the year passes, we will repeatedly cringe at Mary’s increasingly needy and desperate behavior, particularly after she develops a pathetic crush on the much-younger Joe, which has emotionally harrowing consequences when he unexpectedly shows up several months later with a girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). But while the film has character developments, it lacks a traditional plot. It is, as the title suggests, merely another year in the lives of these vividly fleshed-out characters.

To say that Another Year features good performances is an impotent understatement. Each and every actor, working in lengthy improvisational collaboration with Leigh, delivers a flawless and masterful performance. As Tom and Gerri, Broadbent and Sheen convincingly communicate decades of love, commitment, and communication. The moments of casual affection between them will pierce your heart. Wight’s portrayal of Ken is explosive, blustery, and unexpectedly moving.

But if you’ve been following the awards circuit at all, you already know that the big story here is Lesley Manville. Leigh has always been gifted at evoking nerve-striking performances from his leading ladies, be it Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies or Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, and Manville’s performance here is unquestionably one for the ages. When Mary is introduced to Joe’s girlfriend, Manville gives one of the most devastating reaction shots in the history of screen acting.

Another Year was one of the best films of 2010. And although San Francisco had to wait until 2011 to see it, it’s been worth the wait.

RIYL: Mike Leigh films, middle-class British dramas, character studies

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: