(No longer in theaters)
Dec 29, 2010
Another year, another Mike Leigh gem, this one called Another Year, a minor-key ensemble drama: four seasons in the life of an aging couple—Tom, a geologist, and Gerri, a medical counselor—played by those wonderful Leigh veterans Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They are true Earth People, first seen tending to their vegetable garden a short distance from their suburban London house, comfy together with their graying hair and thickening waists. Their home is roomy and inviting, a place of refuge for lonely people, among them their good-hearted, thirtyish son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), and Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who’s in appalling physical shape and getting fatter and more sadly soused by the day. The film’s most epic lost soul is Mary (Lesley Manville), an alcoholic with teased hair and plunging blouses and a desperate eye for a suitable man who will have her—even, at one point, Tom’s broken-down, barely verbal, newly widowed brother (David Bradley).
Leigh fans will be in clover amid all this garrulous despair and grotesquerie. For others, Another Year will test the paradox of Leigh’s work. It’s well known that he presents his actors with characters and a premise rather than a finished script and sends them out to amass details, physical and psychological. When they return with their bounty, he shapes a screenplay and films them indulgently. The more prodigious their misery, the more indulgent he is. The problem is that most viewers spend less time marveling at the actors’ inventiveness than being crushed by the weight of the characters’ suicide-worthy lives. It’s particularly true here: Leigh has given Manville, a frequent collaborator, a monumental pedestal, which means that every admiring close-up of her builds to some cringe-worthy humiliation.
My advice: Steel yourself against the too-muchness, and savor, as if you were a social scientist, the variety of ways in which middle-class English people create edifices in which to house their aloneness. Leigh opens in the office of Gerri’s colleague (Michelle Austin) with a close-up of Imelda Staunton as a woman so utterly depressed and shut down that every scene that follows feels escapist in comparison. (Asked what would improve her life, she murmurs, barely audibly, “Different life …”) With their shared lot, Tom and Gerri are exemplary—and yet their happiness has an aspect of complacency. They know they’ve got this human-isolation thing licked and view Mary and her ilk with a mix of sympathy and condescension: the poor dear. But it’s better to be them than others, which means the lesson of Another Year is: Get busy on that garden.