Another Year (2010, Mike Leigh)
A confession: I had never seen a Mike Leigh film. An even worse confession: I had a truly absurd reason for not having done so and I hesitate to even tell you about it, but I’m going to because I trust you. At a Q&A about ten years back, Leigh was discussing depictions of London in film, someone brought up Frenzy, and he exploded. But fine. The guy doesn’t like my favorite director. Bergman doesn’t like Welles. Godard doesn’t like Bergman. A gigantic who gives a fuck. I was just immature and defensive. So now here I am with Another Year, which brings forth a lot of the tendencies I’d long heard associated with Leigh, of a character-driven naturalism and in general a liberally-exuded empathy. I came away from this low-key, episodic venture feeling as though I truly knew the people pictured in it, warmed by the kindness and love of the central characters, and saddened by the despair it quietly documents — which is all too real, of course.
Living up to its title, the film covers four seasons in the life of a happily married couple named, uh, Tom and Gerri (brilliantly embodied by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, the parents everyone wishes they had) and the deeply troubled people in their orbit: friends, distant family, perpetual messes. Reigning above them all is drunken, overbearing Mary (Lesley Manville), a tirelessly well-meaning coworker of Gerri’s who’s ultimately ruled by her neediness. She can be unpleasantly selfish and creates more than one awkward situation, but she always remains recognizable from our own lives, representing someone we perhaps wish we’d been capable of treating better than we did. For their part, Gerri and her husband are patient almost to a fault; they capture an almost glacial tolerance whose seams only show under extreme stress. Leigh isn’t interested in taking the easy way out of making this story about their marriage, even if it it’s subtly dependent upon it; that conflict has been well-trodden ground for centuries. Instead, his interest is in the contrasts here, and in the effect of contentment on those surrounding it.
There are others besides Mary. Ken (Peter Wight) is a lonely, constantly out of breath man with his eyes on an uninterested Mary. Tom’s gruff, quiet brother Ronnie (David Bradley) is a tragic figure whose loss of his wife during the narrative casts what seems a permanent shadow on his face. The couple’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman) enters the picture at first as a slightly melancholy single man but then introduces chipper girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), whose perpetual optimism eases her into Tom and Gerri’s good graces. There is Ronnie’s estranged son Carl (Martin Savage), whose emotional reaction to his mother’s death has a rawness that can’t easily be filed away neatly by the others. And there is the curious, brief entrance of Imelda Staunton as a depressed insomniac, a patient of counselor Gerri. That last character illustrates one of the elements of Another Year that doesn’t quite come off — though its thesis is complete, its emotional cycles are not. Too many of the characters it introduces are never given development or closure, they simply enter in a specific state and leave in the same state. Streamlining of unnecessary characters, however compelling, could well have made this stronger.
But of course, Leigh’s tossing in of material like that offered by Staunton helps illustrate the sad maxim that some people are just permitted by the world to be happy and to enjoy long and successful lives, and some are not. It’s grim, and can lead some viewers to see some vampiric undercurrent in Tom and Gerri’s behavior as they discuss their latest lavish vacation in front of Ronnie and a distraught-looking Mary, the sort of person whose destiny and doom, it seems, are to live a life of elusive contentment. My own conclusions are less hostile; I recognize a bit of myself in Tom and Gerri but also in the other characters, enough so to sympathize with either side equally. The couple isn’t perfect but they’re doing their best to lead by example and to provide open arms, an open home to their loved ones; when their patience occasionally flags, it seems human and familiar to me. But no one who’s ever been depressed or suffered a broken heart will fail to find themselves moved by Mary’s face in the closing scene, because every one of us has heard life carrying on cheerfully around us while we felt ourselves sinking ever further into some unrequited, unrelentingly dark feeling.
The world Mike Leigh and his actors create here is remarkably detailed and lived-in; you actually feel as if the single days illustrated for each season by the narrative structure might not be enough. You want to spend more time with Tom and Gerri, even if all the excessive politeness of Katie or the ill-houseguest behavior of Mary might wear thin, just as it would in real life. Leigh’s visual presentation of all this doesn’t go far beyond telefilm level, but when we’re watching characters communicate so believably that we feel as if we’re there in the room with them, maybe that absence of flashy technique is a good thing. The tangential style takes some getting used to — it’s hard to accept the fact that the film opens by placing considerable importance on two characters whom we never come to really know — and the gray sadness that overtakes as the film goes on is contagious, but this is a memorable and valuable experience, something to take into our hearts.