It can be argued that beginnings and endings of relationships are relatively simple to diagram, and that the true drama happens in that hazier middle zone—the part that Cianfrance leaves out. By the time we get our first glimpse of Cindy over her bad quick oatmeal, her mind is essentially made up. It would have been fascinating to see her first twinge of uncertainty: What triggered it? On the other hand, three time periods would make Blue Valentine more head-spinning in places than it already is. More than two, and you start having flashbacks to Lost.
As little Frankie, Faith Wladyka is an unusually convincing child actress, and it’s her playful and funny rapport with Gosling’s Dean that makes you like him even when the darkness is taking hold. To Cindy, he’s another child to take care of. To Frankie, he’s the person who makes her feel safe. Perhaps that horror-film-like threat to the child in the movie’s first scene is apt after all. Blue Valentine leaves you with the shattering vision of its truest victim—the one who’ll someday look for safety in places it might not be. And the psychodrama will go on and on …
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.
Sofia Coppola’s absent-daddy issues are front and center in Somewhere, about a rich and promiscuous movie star (Stephen Dorff) who is, in existential terms, nowhere, and the young daughter (Elle Fanning) he barely sees but has to tote along on a promotional trip to Italy. This is a mood piece, shapeless but often lyric. There is, on one hand, all that sex and wealth and glamour; on the other, a floating wistfulness in the absence of home. Coppola’s poor-rich-girl vision is certainly consistent, although you sometimes wonder if she knows that hers is not the universal human condition.