Jim Broadbent as Tom
Lesley Manville as Mary
Ruth Sheen as Gerri
Oliver Maltman as Joe
Peter Wight as Ken
David Bradley as Ronnie
Martin Savage as Carl
Karina Fernandez as Katie
Michele Austin as Tanya
Directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh movies aren’t for everyone, let’s just state that at the outset. They’re slow, plotless, repetitive, plotless, ambiguous, plotless. While interested in drama, their main focus is representing that drama not within the heightened realm of traditional fiction but within the meandering banality of everyday life. Considering that’s exactly the sort of thing a lot of us go to the movies expressly to get away from, it’s no surprise it doesn’t work for everyone.
Which is too bad because, if you give it the time and focus on the characters rather than what they are doing, you will be rewarded with a character study capable of revealing real truths about human nature.
Uncomfortable truths are the name of the game in “Another Year,” truths about growing older, about losing the connections that we have taken for granted through our lives and accepting the reality that they may never return.
Explaining the plot in a Mike Leigh movie is pretty much an exercise in futility but I’ll give it a shot: Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) have been married quite a while and have developed the coterie of friends you get just by dent of having been around a while. There’s Mary (Lesley Manville), a 60-year-old office worker who hasn’t been in a relationship for a while and has difficulty accepting the fact she may not ever again; there’s Ken (Peter Wight) an aging salesman who has become too old to interact with his younger colleagues on their terms but isn’t sure how to connect with anyone else; son Joe (Olive Maltman), who has moved out but not really begun his adult life yet, to his parents’ concern; and Ronnie (David Bradley), Gerri’s brother who is dealing with his wife’s (Imelda Staunton) slow succumbing to cancer.
Against the bulwark of Tom and Gerri, these assorted family and friends come together here and there, revealing in the casual talk of the close their fears and problems in the rambling talk of the real that is both pointless and pointed. Over the course of a year, they examine their lives and what they want from them; some of them change, some of them don’t.
Not surprisingly, this is a film about its characters. While an ensemble piece, some are given more weight than others, and most of “Another Year’s” weight falls on the shoulders of Mary, played with exacting desperation by Manville in one of the year’s best performances.
Mary is, frankly, a mess. She’s well past her prime and beginning to face the problems of approaching old age, which would be bad enough. She and fate collude to compound those problems by having her face the future without the human relationships she wants (a boyfriend or husband) and taking for granted the ones she does have. The approaching desperation of entering old age alone is compounded by her inability to shake off the desires of her youth, desires which she inhabits so completely they begin to define her outside of reality. She spends an undue amount of time watching a man in a bar, building up an idea of him as a perfect suitor–what he’s like and what he will say when he comes over to her because he’s obviously been making eyes at her–and when the woman the man is waiting for arrives she falls to pieces. This has become her modus operandi to the point where all friends and even acquaintances have begun slightly dreading her visits. Tom and Gerri even keep the upstairs bedroom made so that she will have a place to sleep off the drinking bouts that inevitably follow her disappointments.
While this could just be a depressing view into a depressing life, in Leigh and Manville’s hands it becomes a moment of truth for the viewer, an indictment at the way we don’t appreciate things until they are gone. It’s this truth that runs through all of the substories in “Another Year,” almost literally in the case of Ronnie and his estranged son who cracks up when arrives too late for his mother’s funeral service.
You would be forgiven for forgetting the rest of that, as almost everything in the film is shunted aside by Manville’s towering performance, although it reaches the point where the film seems to revolve around her rather than Tom and Gerri, who are meant to be the counterbalance to everyone else’s isolation in their loving acceptance of life as it is, but who as characters suffer the same fate as everyone else. Mary’s desperation is just so palpable even director Leigh can’t stay away from it; like a collapsing star, it drags everything else into its orbit regardless of whatever business they were about. It is noticeably unbalancing to the finished product, but with the greatness that comes from it, it’s just about worth it.
Well observed, bittersweet, “Another Year” is close enough to our own lives to make it both uncomfortable to watch and not exactly the escapism people turn to fiction for, which makes it both unique and necessary.