by M. Faust
Another Year is the latest film by Mike Leigh, which is all many of you will need to know to get you to the North Park Theater. Over the course of 20-plus feature films for theaters and television, he’s earned that kind of audience loyalty and respect. To you I need say only that you won’t be disappointed: At the age of 67, he’s at the peak of his craft, working with a cast that will largely be familiar to you from his other films, including Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, and Peter Wight.
For those of you unfamiliar with Leigh, whose films include Naked, Vera Drake, and Topsy-Turvy, he is the British filmmaker least likely ever to work in Hollywood, or even outside of England. Partly that’s because his working method wouldn’t fly here: He starts building a film from a general theme by assembling a cast he wants to work with and putting them through a lengthy process of improvisation, which he observes and uses to create a screenplay. Working on one of his films means giving up a solid year, something actors are happy to do because of the results he gets.
But the real reason Leigh will never work away from home is because that is his subject: the lives of his contemporaries, the British equivalent of baby boomers and their families.
After his last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, about a young woman who chooses to be optimistic in the face of everything life offers her, Leigh decided he wanted to explore people making the transition out of middle age. For some it can be a time to reap the benefits of a sound, stable emotional life. For others, it is a time to live up to failure.
In four segments corresponding to the seasons (and filmed accordingly with a subtle visual palette by Leigh’s regular cinematographer, Dick Pope), Another Year centers around a happy, middle-class couple. Tom (Jim Broadbent) is an engineering geologist, Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a psychological counselor at a community hospital. Now that their son Joe (Oliver Maltman, who resembles Broadbent) is on his own, they devote their spare time to gardening the patch of ground allotted to them (a British custom with no American counterpart).
Less grounded is Mary (Lesley Manville), a clerical worker at Gerri’s hospital. She was probably a beautiful young woman, but put too much stock in it, and after a failed marriage and an ill-considered affair, she is approaching 50 with fading looks and an empty life she fills with alcohol.
Her male counterpart is Ken (Peter Wight), from Tom’s home town of Hull. Ken has also not secured a place for himself, and resists retirement because the only other things that fill his time are eating and drinking, both to unhappy excess.
Described thusly, Another Year sounds like a wallow in misery, which is how viewers who prefer their films plot-driven have reacted to it. But as always Leigh’s cast do the most affecting things with the characters they have worked so hard to develop. Manville, Oscar’s most egregious oversight this year, initially seems to be overplaying her part. But if you’ve ever known women like her, you’ll realize that she gets it exactly right: She may sometimes be hard to watch, but you can’t deny the real pain and hopelessness of the character as it is teased out.
Nor are Tom and Gerri the saints they may seem. As the film goes on it becomes clear to us that along with the their own happiness comes the realization that they are limited in what they can—or will—do to help others.
Leigh is not a melodramatist flaunting a cautionary story. Another Year is not without humor, in unexpected spots, and it is filled with as much warmth as pity. I feel sorry for any viewer who can’t, or won’t, empathize for the fully drawn people they will meet here.
Watch the trailer for Another Year
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