POSTED ON FEBRUARY 2, 2011:
Another Year is slow, somber and unflinching
After watching Another Year, I've racked my brain trying to think of another filmmaker who has chronicled the modern English condition more than its director Mike Leigh. I can't come up with anybody. Since the late 1980s, Leigh has carved out a niche as the ultimate storyteller of the English with a series of intelligent, challenging films that focus on regular people as they go about their daily lives. In fact Another Year is perhaps the most "Leigh" of all Mike Leigh films to date.
Always cognizant of the passing of time and the importance of the moment of now in his films, Another Year takes place over four seasons in a single year. While it might seem lacking action on first glance, the story is anything but static as it involves all the key moments in life -- birth, death, love blossoming, friendships strained, lost and embraced.
As typical with a Leigh movie, Another Year is a stark blast of conversation that slowly reveals the complexity of the human heart and when it's over, these characters have burrowed their way deep into my waking thoughts.
The unfortunately named married couple Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) live a comfortable and mundane existence. For them, there's nothing better than spending quiet time in their garden and cooking dinner, sampling wines while talking to each other about their day. They are a married couple that spends time together and treat each other with love, kindness and respect. The warmest and inviting of people, Tom and Gerri invite friends into their house even with the knowledge that they will have to spend the evening guiding their troubled guests.
It seems as if Tom and Gerri play social worker to their friends all too often. Friends come over and get pissed (drunk to us on this side of the Atlantic) and begin to rant about how depressed, empty, alone and lost they are. It's not exactly the kind of dinner conversation you hope for when you've invited people over, but Tom and Gerri face these nights with compassion, fully invested in the rough patches because that's what friends do. Entirely too congenial and English to keep them at bay, Tom and Gerri listen with saintly patience as various folks drone on and on about how miserable their lives are.
The most entertaining and irritating is Mary (Leslie Manville), a flighty, self-absorbed attention craver who has been stunted by emotional hard times through the years. Still living in the failed romantic relationships of her past, she has the naive, delusional quality that Leigh has turned to often through the years. He loves portraying people who are part exasperating, part charming and then letting the audience become befuddled and enthralled at the feelings they inspire. Mary is both annoying and riveting to watch. Manville delivers a performance that is pathetic, humorous and achingly sad.
If you've enjoyed some of Leigh's previous films such as Naked, Secrets & Lies or the recent Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year will be another memorable journey to England. Unafraid to tackle the thorniest of subjects, Leigh digs into his characters and exposes not only their prickly personalities, but also larger social issues and ills that are at work in middle class England. His films can be awash in a ferocious acidity of the tongue, yet at the same time have a patient gentleness to them. The dialogue is so completely natural and polite, it lulls you into thinking there isn't sharpness in the words. That's a mistake, as the undercurrent of conversation is frequently rife with meaning.
Another Year is on the slow side, but so is the vast majority of our lives. The languorous pace of the film is perfectly matched to the way we live in a blur of days on the calendar. Like it or not, the routine of work, leisure and sleep is the mantra of the masses.
Leigh exposes us to these intimate little moments of his characters and gives a missing sparkle to the absolute normalcy of one day leading to the next, one season leading to the next. We should all be so lucky in our lives to have the humdrum look so interesting.
It's fairly common to see stories based around the dissolution of marriage or relationships in cinema. Leigh tosses that idea away and gives us a remarkably functional couple dealing with all the less successful people who orbit them. He's perpetually intrigued by the rooted bonds of human companionship between individuals: husband and wife, children and parents, friends and co-workers. A key fabric of the shared relationships on display in Another Year is one of acceptance with all the quirks, foibles and neurotic ways the people we all know have.
Bittersweet, somber and full of life, Another Year tells its story with simple direction, raw honesty and complex people. There's no need for flash when the characters are this well thought out and crafted. Writer/director Mike Leigh has been mining the English psyche for decades and Another Year is classic Leigh, delivering an unflinching account of the lives of a typical middle class couple and their circle of acquaintances.
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