The criticism most often levied by casual viewers against non-Hollywood films—those of the indie, art house and foreign variety—is that they’re slow. There’s no action. Edits are infrequent, cameras are often static, people rarely get killed and explosions are all but absent. Given that, I must concede that not a damn thing of any consequence happens in Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year. Nonetheless, it’s a warm, inviting film that’s well deserving of its many year-end awards (one Oscar nod, two BAFTA nominations, four from the British Independent Film Awards and a slew of kudos from various film critics associations).
Leigh has made a career out of crafting meticulously observed kitchen-sink dramas (Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky). As the title promises, Another Year sits back and quietly records four seasons in the life of long-married Derbyshire couple Tom (Jim Broadbent, who worked with Leigh on Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen, who worked on Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies). He is a geologist. She is a therapist. Their lives are, by all accounts, average. Well past middle age, they’ve settled into a simple, seemingly fulfilling routine. Work, gardening, dinner, bed. Not much, at this point, is going to change for them. As the seasons march on, though, Tom and Gerri find themselves surrounded by a collection of sad-sack friends, all of whom seem to need a shoulder to cry on.
Chief among these longtime pals is Mary (frequent Leigh collaborator Lesley Manville). The majority of Tom and Gerri’s friends have wandered away, died off or gotten on with their own lives. Mary is characteristic of the leftovers: broken products of divorce, failed careers, fading youth and go-nowhere lives. Mary looks quite a bit younger than her mid-50s age bracket. She’s pretty, vivacious. There’s a sad beauty to her, though. A decade or two past her prime, she’s no longer the arm candy she wants to be. Despite her upbeat attitude, there’s a desperate air about her. She makes speeches about loving her freedom, but it’s clear she’s missing a lot in her life. She compensates by drinking a great deal of wine and trying to flirt with Tom and Gerri’s much younger son.
We meet other people. There’s an unhappy, unhealthy widower (Peter Wight) who seems determined to eat, drink and smoke himself into oblivion. There’s a blithering gal who’s dating Tom and Gerri’s son. What’s most interesting about Another Year, though, is the creeping realization that we know very little about Tom and Gerri themselves. Are they happy? Are they stable? They seem to be, which is why their messed-up friends gravitate toward them. But they can hardly get a word in edgewise. They are good listeners, though, and we get to hear Leigh’s cynically realistic message through them.
Most movies, obsessed as they are with “character arcs,” would have us believe that people can always change. But Leigh believes something more realistic. At some point—certainly by the time we hit our 50s—odds are quite good we aren’t going to improve our lot in life. We aren’t suddenly going to find true love. We aren’t going to stop drinking. We aren’t going to lose weight. We aren’t going to become wiser or happier or more attractive to the opposite sex. Leigh has the courage to say that sometimes screwed-up people are just permanently screwed. Thankfully, Leigh has enough of a sense of humor to keep us chuckling along in recognition and not wanting to hang ourselves in realization.
Leigh starts off Another Year with a vivid cameo appearance by Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake herself). The camera lingers close and long on Staunton’s face, playing a client of Gerri’s. She’s a tightlipped housewife who says little during her therapy session. But the way she says it speaks volumes. By the time her brief scene is done, we know almost everything about this woman and her unhappy life. Few directors would have the confidence to linger so long and hard on an actor. Leigh does, and it pays off in spades. As usual, the script for Another Year was developed in collaboration with the actors over the course of many months. The result is a collection characters so lived in, they’re worn at the edges. Chances are, you’ll know just how they feel.