This film is unlike what you expect from a biopic, there is no abstruse birth,…
The beauty of Mike Leigh is that he does not care a jot for cinematic trends or the demands of the box office. Leigh just carries on making films on themes that interest him in his own way, usually with the same roster of talent both in front of and behind the camera. There is many a director whose mere name is a signifier of what to expect from their films ; in the case of Mike Leigh it also a virtual guarantee of quality. He may revisit subject matter, locations and character types but he still manages to mine fresh truths and experiences each time whilst shining a spotlight on Mr and Mrs Average. Cinema really needs Mike Leigh.
On the Leigh scale, ‘Another Year’ stands as one of his finest works, possibly his best so far. The film records twelve months in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent ) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a middle-class couple contentedly approaching the age where they might collect their pensions, government rule changes permitting. They might like to see their son a little more often and would love him to find a nice girl but they are happy enough pottering around on their allotment.
Gerri works as a counsellor for the NHS, while Tom is a geologist involved in finding suitable spots to build new motorways. Tom quietly admires his wife’s role in the ‘caring’ profession although in truth they are both carers in their spare time, as their home acts as a refuge for friends who do not seem to be as fortunate, satisfied or well-adjusted as their hosts.
Ken (Peter Wright) is an overweight, single and possibly alcoholic mate from Hull who pops down for a barbecue in the summer and never really wants to leave. Then there is Jack (Phil Davis), who has a housebound wife to cope with but remains resilient none the less. By far the most regular house guest is Mary (Lesley Manville), a colleague of Gerri’s. Mary is a walking disaster area when it comes to relationships or indeed basic functionality and is an emotional wreck to boot. Divorced in her twenties, Mary would desperately like to find Mr Right but he seems to have successfully avoided her this far. In Tom and Gerri, she has friends with apparently limitless patience for her socially embarrassing and demanding behaviour.
For several of their friends, Tom and Gerri’s house is a point of stability where they can seek out a brief respite from their own difficulties and disappointments. The couple are the driftwood to which these shipwrecked souls can cling on to in choppy waters. Ironically, they are also a yardstick by which others measure themselves and find their own lives wanting. For Mary this leads to feelings of jealousy exacerbated by the fact that she has a none-too-secret crush on the couple’s son. When the young man does indeed bring a lovely girl home Mary behaves so outrageously that it nearly severs her ties to both Gerri and her husband,
The pleasure of ‘Another Year,’ in common with Leigh’s other films, is in the accuracy and nuances of the observations. Many of us either know someone like Mary or, perhaps, can recognise elements of ourselves in her persona. The people shown here are not heroes or celebrities but ordinary, flawed and often lonely folks dealing with the hand that life has dealt them, more often than not with the assistance of alcohol. The performances, which are brilliant all round, help us to believe in and sympathise with each character in turn. Lesley Manville, in particular, is outstanding but her role is the obvious showstopper. Even so, it is still some achievement.
This film is also, as its title hints , about getting older and coping with the passage of time. Tom remarks on how he has a new interest in history which, thanks to his own age, has become more relevant to him. The film’s characters are constantly discussing and re-evaluating their pasts, digging up old memories and old mistakes in the same way that Tom’s mechanical drill dredges up the clay which lies beneath the surface of London.
Meanwhile, the seasons continue ever onwards bringing with them new arrivals and sad departures. These people are not just tied to their own personal history but are also tiny components in the continuous story of humanity itself. ‘Another Year’ brims over with good humour, genuine warmth and eye dampening poignancy. There are some deluded fools out there who have little time for Mike Leigh, dismissing him as twee or patronising. In my book, he is a movie maestro and ‘Another Year’ serves only to reinforce that belief.