Another Year is a film as rueful as its title, a quiet character study of friends surprised and dismayed to find themselves pushing past middle age into the uneasy realm before the retirement homes but firmly ensconced in the land of senior discounts. Our protagonists are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a long-married couple who react to jokes about their names as they do to everything in life: with warmth, good humor and a self-assured confidence that reads as something close to bliss. He has a good job as a geologist, she works as a counselor. They have settled into their roles as guardians and guides to a group of less comfortable mates, including their grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom's lonely and self-destructive mate Ken (Peter Wight) and Gerri's flaky co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville). Over the course of a year, from spring to winter, Tom and Gerri attend to their needs, listen to the story of their lives and tend to them much in the same way they do to their community garden. Mike Leigh's films have a certain deliberate cadence and preoccupation with specifically rendered, in-depth character studies and in that regard Another Year stands as one of his most sparkling achievements. The incidences are small, but the themes--grief and loneliness, disappointment and longing, complex interpersonal relationships that span decades and how the fidelity to those relationships ebbs and flows--are vast and universal. It is the most wonderfully observed piece of filmmaking this year, a slice of life picture that does not slip into maudlin sentiment nor rejoice in icy, indie-cred aloofness. Another Year does not seek to resolve the issues of its characters because they are real people and like real people, their self-doubts and ambitions cannot be contained in a forty-five minute story arc. You'll be thinking of these characters long after the credits roll.
Another Year does not have a plot so much as it has characters, embodied by actors, who drive the narrative. Everyone involved gives a startlingly naturalistic performance, a result of months of intimate rehearsal time with Mike Leigh. Broadbent and Sheen are the anchors of the picture, providing its genial and leisurely tone. It would be too easy to turn Tom and Gerri into a stereotype of middle class comforts. As a couple, they are infuriatingly well-adjusted and their patient and practiced advice to the other characters could come across as paternalistic or patronizing in the hands of less gifted actors.
If Tom and Gerri are the eye of the storm, Lesley Manville's Mary is the full gale force. In a year brimming with strong female performances, Manville's powerful, pathetic turn is the one that's stayed with me the longest. In spring, Mary is just Gerri's bubbly co-worker. She's flirty and garrulous, wears low-cut tops that are a bit age inappropriate, but like the season, she's spritely and sunny. She openly flirts with Joe, the much younger son of her only friends, rebuffs the advances of the overweight Ken, perhaps the only man who could relate to her own loneliness and just generally begins to unwind in front of us. With each passing season the layers are stripped away as Mary's desperation becomes more and more impossible to mask. Manville's face is a marvel: every heartbreak, every lonely wine-soaked weekend, the accumulation of a lifetime of disappointments, is etched into her features, which grow wan and gray with the coming winter snow. She has the haunted, faraway look of a shelter dog, moving in reticent twitches, at once craving love and affection but always on the alert for the next emotional abuses. Mary is a woman who has never formed an identity apart from her physical beauty and youthful optimism, a position which has left her divorced and virtually friendless, chronically unsure of how to move forward with those few virtues rapidly diminishing.
When our brood of characters gathers for a funeral in the final sequence of the film, Mary at last finds one unlikely spark of human connection, but even that interaction is muted by the occasion and the bleakness of the season. Another Year is not unduly dour but it does not offer any happy endings. As Gerri says to Mary at one point, "Life's not always kind, is it?" But it's not always cruel either. Without overstating moral lessons, Mike Leigh's film gently prods the viewer with pangs of self-recognition: everyone knows someone like Tom and Gerri, or Mary or Ken. Everyone can relate to being stuck in a rut. Another Year never condescends to judge its characters, an empathetic quality likewise engendered in the viewer.
December 29, 2010