The kindly ones…
In a New York Film Festival 2010 “critic’s notebook” survey, Manohla Dargis of the NY Times says of Mike Leigh’s Another Year that it “schematically and too tidily follows, across the seasons, a late-middle-aged couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and the usual collection of Leigh twitchers (including Lesley Manville in a hate-it or love-it turn).” Traditionally it has seemed that Leigh’s actors work together extensively, developing their characters’ “back-stories,” and then hone a series of scenes through improvisation. It is hard to believe Another Year is improvised. The dialogue dovetails too perfectly. Every word is in place, and there are no surprises or non sequiturs.
Yes, Another Year — the title signaling both the four-season division of sequences and Leigh’s spotlighting a couple who’re getting older — is well organized. But the counter to Dargis’ accusation of schematic structure and excessive tidiness is the wonderful acting — a given with Leigh, but even more notable here. Focusing on two of his finest actors, Jim Broadbent and Rugh Sheen, and giving a central role to his most frequent collaborator, Lesley Manville, is a guarantee of satisfaction. As the geologist Tom and therapist Gerri, a long-happiy-married couple, Broadbent and Sheen build a sense of ease, warmth, and mental health that is uncannily natural. One almost wants to reproach the actors for fooling us so successfully, but one also loves and admires the couple they represent.
Manville’s “love-it or hate-it turn” is a splendid and complex meltdown. At first (in the “Spring” sequence) Gerri and Mary (Manville) go for a drink at a pub after work and Mary seems a fun person, just lonely, and disappointed when the man who’s been staring at her is met by a girlfriend after Gerri leaves. Then Mary later on comes for dinner with Tom and Gerri and gets so drunk she has to sleep over. It begins to seem that she’s not just a bit sad and lonely, but depressed and desperate.
Later (in the “Summer” sequence) we meet Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom’s who comes to visit and also gets drunk, smokes too much, and is lonely and maudlin. He is an older counterpoint to Mary, and when Mary comes for a party she rebuffs Ken’s overtures and instead pushes herself upon Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri’s much younger, still unattached son, a community lawyer. Mary has been talking about buying her first second-hand automobile, and she arrives greatly flustered because now that she has bought a car she finds driving terribly stressful. The car is going to be the symbol of Mary’s meltdown, a disaster from the start, ultimately taken away months later in return for only twenty pounds.
“Autumn” brings the discovery that Joe has found Katie (Karina Fernandez), a physical therapist who’s the love of his life. Joe and Katie turn up to surprise Joe’s parents, on an afternoon when Mary is invited for tea. Mary is horrified to find Joe paired off and is rude to Katie. And her car troubles have gotten worse. Her bad behavior alienates her from Gerri, who was her chief confidante.
In the “Winter” sequence, rather obviously shot through a blue filter, a certain dourness counterblancing the celebration of Joe and Katie is established by a sequence in which Tom and Gerri go north for the funeral of Tom’s older brother Ronnie’s wife. Ronnie (David Bradley) is a laconic individual, whom they take home for a while to ease his adjustment to widowerhood. While Tom and Gerri are off tending their allotment garden — a theme throughout — Mary comes to the door, not having been in touch for some time, and is let by in by Ronnie in a distraught, much deteriorated state. She has not slept, and got drunk on a twenty-pound bottle of champagne she drank by herself following the demise of her car. The film ends with the happy couple, Joe and Ketie, at the table with Tom, Gerri, Ronnie and Mary, with a fade-out on the face of Mary, contemplating the wreckage, it would seem, of her life.
The best parts of Another Year are the “Spring” evening when Mary is alone with Tom and Gerri and gets very drunk, and the various moments of intimacy when Tom and Gerri are alone together. When one describes the plot one realizes that in the way of working with all these characters, each with occupation, personality, back-story and relationship with the principals, a certain rigidity sets in to organize how they all fit together into the film. Curiously there is an analogy between this film and Woody Allen’s. Both directors get together a group of good actors and let them do their thing, but the difference is that Leigh’s attitude to life, though mature and partly rueful, is not as negative and pessimistic as Allen’s has become. After one has watched Another Year one is conscious of having had a very good time, and yet somehow there is nothing crucial or climactic enough about the action to make it all truly memorable. Just as with Woody Allen. Except for the big difference that Another Year is full of homely but very warm observations about life.
The central theme of Another Year, or a central one at least, is helping people, which is obviously what Tom and Gerri do — Gerri, even, as a profession. Because they are happy and stable they give back to the community of their friends and relatives the help they are capable of giving and that the others need. Their challenge is to decide how much to trust and how much to give. They trust Joe to find a good woman, and trust that Katie is one. They rue the decline of Ken but send him on his way. They help Ronnie when his wife dies, but they are unsure about Mary. They would like to kick her out. She has behaved badly toward Joe and Katie. But they let her stay for dinner. They are a little like Edward and Lavinia in T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Their mission is not to become martyrs in Africa like Edward’s mistress Celia, but to, in effect, give a party, to welcome people and give them a little help without turning their own lives upside down in the process. The acting is wonderful, the structure is a little superficial and obvious, but the film is full of wise humanity and offers food for thought.
Another Year debuted at Cannes and played or will play at Toronto, Telluride and London. It is a Sony Pictures Classics release and opens in US theaters December 31. Seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2010, where its public screenings were Oct. 5 and 6.
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville
Runtime: 129 min